Race takes center stage in McMichaels’ bond hearing

Contentious hearing continues Friday

From the beginning, Greg and Travis McMichael’s attorneys have fought back against accusations that their clients, charged in Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death, were motivated by racial animus.

That claim was scrutinized Thursday after a close friend of Travis McMichael testified they had exchanged text messages littered with racist tropes and ugly stereotypes about African-Americans and Asians.

Whether that revelation deals a fatal blow to the McMichaels' quest for bond remains to be seen. The hearing for the father and son accused in the case that’s drawn national attention will resume Friday.

Race has defined the case from the beginning. The McMichaels, along with neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, chased Arbery in their pick-up trucks, believing he burglarized a nearby house under construction. Prosecutors say Arbery was just out jogging the day of the fatal February encounter and stole nothing.

The three suspects are white. Arbery was Black. Bryan, also charged with murder, was denied bond in July.

The three white men trapped Arbery, erecting a makeshift roadblock in their subdivision near Brunswick. After Travis McMichael attempted to keep him from passing through, Arbery fought back.

Travis McMichael fired his shotgun three times, hitting Arbery at close range. Bryan, who captured the entire confrontation on his cell phone, added fuel to the claims of racism when he told a GBI investigator that the younger McMichael, standing over Arbery a “f---ing (n-word)” as he stood over the young man’s body.

The defense denies this, saying Bryan concocted the story in hopes of striking a deal with prosecutors. Their efforts to prevent such evidence from being introduced have mostly fallen short.

The hearing will continue Friday, with more fireworks expected.

“I’ve got a feeling as we go into the evidence today there’s gonna be a bunch of artillery thrown back and forth on a bunch of touchy subjects, things that can inflame,” Judge Timothy Walmsley said Thursday morning.

It was a prescient forecast.

Attorney Jason Sheffield represents Travis McMichael. He said if the state pursued the racial bias claims, the defense would seek to introduce evidence related to Arbery’s previous run-ins with the law.

“We have substantial evidence on that particular day Mr. Arbery was not a jogger. He was there for nefarious purposes.” said Bob Rubin, co-counsel for Travis McMichael.

Walmsley ruled against the defense, saying the victim’s character was inadmissible. Meanwhile, prosecutors remain determined to keep race front and center.

“There’s been a narrative here that this is not about race,” said lead prosecutor Jesse Evans. “That these men are not racist.”

A preview of state exhibits shows Evans is not done exploring the McMichaels' mindset – pivotal to their opposition to bond for the McMichaels, both Brunswick natives.

Greg McMichael, according to defense attorney Laura Hogue, has never been convicted of a crime, is a veteran and has logged more than three decades of service to the community.

His wife, Lee McMichael, testified about her son’s devotion to his only child, Everett, saying he poses no flight risk because he’d never leave without his 4-year-old son.

“He loves home, he loves his son, he will stand up to his responsibility and he wants his day in court,” said Lee McMichael.

Thursday’s hearing concluded with a victim impact statement from Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones.

“Mothers protect their children. I wasn’t given the opportunity to protect my son," she said, arguing against bond for the McMichaels. “These men are as dangerous today as they were on Feb. 23 (the day her son was killed).”