A federal grand jury in Brunswick on Wednesday handed up a hate crimes indictment against the three men facing state murder charges in the February 2020 shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery.
The indictment alleges Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and Roddie Bryan used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race. It also accuses them of trying to kidnap Arbery, 25, while he ran through the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside of Brunswick.
The three suspects are white. Arbery was Black. The maximum penalty on the hate crimes charges is life in prison.
Lawyers for the accused issued statements strongly disputing the new federal charges.
The indictment, obtained by the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Savannah, also accuses the McMichaels of using weapons during alleged crimes of violence. Travis McMichael, 35, shot and killed Arbery with a Remington shotgun and his father, a former police office and investigator, was wielding his .357 magnum revolver.
On Feb. 23, 2020, Greg McMichael, 65, saw Arbery running down the street in front of his house. McMichael called inside to his son and the two men got their weapons, jumped into a pickup truck and sped after Arbery. Bryan, 51, who lived down the street, joined in the chase and tried to block Arbery with his own pickup.
When the three men had Arbery hemmed in, Arbery lunged at Travis McMichael, who had gotten out of his truck with his shotgun trained on Arbery. Travis McMichael killed the unarmed Arbery with three blasts.
Bryan later told GBI agents that he heard Travis McMichael say “(expletive) N-word” as he stood over the dying Arbery. He has denied saying that.
The McMichaels and Bryan were later indicted for murder and other state offenses and denied bond. A trial date has not been set.
The McMichaels and Bryan contend they were making a legitimate citizen’s arrest of Arbery on the day of the killing. Travis McMcMichael’s lawyers say their client was acting in self-defense when he shot Arbery.
Greg McMichael’s lawyers, Bob Rubin and Jason Sheffield, condemned the federal indictment.
“We are deeply disappointed that the Justice Department bought the false narrative that the media and state prosecutors have promulgated,” the lawyers said in a statement. “There is absolutely nothing in the indictment that identifies how this is a federal hate crime and it ignores without apology that Georgia law allows a citizen to detain a person who was committing burglaries until police arrive.”
Frank Hogue, one of Greg McMichael’s lawyers, said it has long been clear that prosecutors believed his client tried to detain Arbery because he was a Black man running through the neighborhood.
“We have disputed in the state case that race was the motivating factor behind the McMichaels’ action,” Hogue said. “Instead, they were attempting to conduct a lawful arrest of a man they had reasonable and probable grounds to suspect had committed a burglary in their neighborhood and was attempting to escape by running away.”
In the federal case, if jurors have reason to believe the McMichaels only wanted to question Arbery about crimes in the neighborhood, “then a jury would be obligated to acquit them,” Hogue said.
Kevin Gough, Bryan’s lawyer, said he was disappointed with the indictment.
“Roddie Bryan has committed no crime,” Gough said. “We look forward to a fair and speedy trial and to the day when Mr. Bryan is released and reunited with his family.”
At the time of Arbery’s killing, Georgia had no hate crimes law. During the 2020 legislative session, the General Assembly overwhelmingly passed such a statute. Because Georgia had no hate crimes law at the time of Arbery’s killing, Justice Department officials said they were investigating the case under the federal law.
“I’m not surprised about the federal indictment given what’s been made public so far,” said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Page Pate, who is following the case. “I think it’s clear there’s at least evidence to suggest that the chase of Mr. Arbery and the shooting may very well have been motivated by racial prejudice. That would be sufficient to satisfy the federal statute.”