Feds say men chased Arbery because of the ‘color of his skin’

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

Prosecutors: Defendants had history of using racial slurs

Note to readers: This article contains disturbing content presented at the trial Monday. Reader discretion is advised.

Brunswick - The man who chased down and fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery sent messages to friends with “a theme of Black people being less than human,” a federal prosecutor told jurors Monday.

Travis McMichael, on trial with his father and a neighbor who filmed the shooting, referred to Black people as “animals, criminals, monkeys and sub-human savages,” prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein said during opening statements of the hate crimes trial.

On Feb. 23, 2020, McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and co-defendant William “Roddie” Bryan joined in a chase of Arbery “based on the color of his skin,” said Bernstein, from the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division. All three men were convicted of murder last year and sentenced to life in prison. Now they face hate crimes charges in a trial that will center around race.

Apologizing to jurors for the racial epithets she was about to cite, Bernstein quoted from texts Travis McMichael sent to a friend.

“Zero (n-words) work with me,” he wrote. “They ruined everything. That’s why I love what I do now. Not a (n-word) in sight.”

Bernstein told jurors they will learn how all three defendants talked about Black people “behind closed doors.”

She said Greg McMichael also used racially incendiary language, detailing an incident in which he allegedly told a woman he was glad that Atlanta civil rights leader Julian Bond had died.

“He was nothing but trouble,” Greg McMichael said, according to Bernstein. “Those Blacks are nothing but trouble.”

As for Bryan, shortly before Arbery’s killing, he had learned his daughter was dating a Black man. In messages, Bryan repeatedly referred to that man as a “(n-word)” and a “monkey,” Bernstein told the jury.

She concluded by saying if the unarmed Arbery had been white, he would have gone for a jog that afternoon and been “home in time for Sunday dinner.” Instead, he found himself “alone and scared, bleeding to death in the middle of the street,” Bernstein said.

Defense attorneys acknowledged their clients had said terribly offensive things about Black people. But that isn’t why they decided to chase Arbery that afternoon, they argued.

Attorney A.J. Balbo, who represents Greg McMichael, said the McMichaels tried to apprehend Arbery after seeing him run away from a home under construction down the street.

“Greg and Travis followed Ahmaud Arbery not because he was a Black man, but because he was the man illegally entering the house,” Balbo said.

Greg McMichael, he conceded, used language “that will make people cringe.” But it is important to put what he said into context, he said.

All three defense attorneys condemned Arbery’s killing while seemingly distancing themselves from their clients’ racist remarks.

“The killing of Ahmaud Arbery is an American tragedy,” Balbo said. “It was unnecessary, it was horrific and it was the result of the actions of these defendants.” But this isn’t a murder trial,” he told the jury.

Amy Lee Copeland, Travis McMichael’s attorney, said, “I can’t stand before you today and say my client has never said the n-word ... My client uses words that I don’t use and expresses opinions that I don’t share.”

On the day of the killing, she said, McMichael was simply “trying to be a good neighbor.”

Pete Theodocion, the last lawyer to address the jury, said he wasn’t there “to excuse or defend racism.”

The Augusta attorney, who represents Bryan, called racist tropes, slurs and opinions the “lowest of human emotion.”

“It’s pathetic,” he said. “It’s sad.”

Theodocion said while almost any homicide is a tragedy, “this one is particularly awful. ... Ahmaud Arbery did not deserve the fate that befell him. He did nothing wrong.”

He acknowledged that Bryan has used language that he’s embarrassed by and sorry for. But he contended his client is not obsessed with race or defined by it. On that afternoon, Bryan saw a man who was being chased and assumed “he must have done something wrong,” his attorney said.

Before openings, eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person were chosen to serve as jurors in the federal hate crimes trial.

Four alternate jurors include three white people and one person who identifies as a Pacific Islander. The 16-member panel is made up of 11 women and five men, but neither the judge nor the attorneys told them who was selected as a trial juror and who was an alternate.

Last year’s state trial became mired in controversy after defense attorneys used their allotted strikes to eliminate 11 of the 12 prospective Black jurors from the qualified panel. That case was decided by a jury of 11 white people and one Black man.

U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood has said she expects the trial to last seven to 12 days. The prosecution is expected to call its first witness at 9 a.m. Tuesday.