OPINION: Arbery trial to be a battle of competing truths

In this image from video posted on Twitter on May 5, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, left, struggles with Travis McMichael over a shotgun on a street in a neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020. Arbery, who was jogging when he was confronted by McMichael and his father and shot multiple times. The 25-year-old died at the scene.

In this image from video posted on Twitter on May 5, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, left, struggles with Travis McMichael over a shotgun on a street in a neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020. Arbery, who was jogging when he was confronted by McMichael and his father and shot multiple times. The 25-year-old died at the scene.

Eighteen months before he was shot to death running from three men in southeast Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery and his grandmother were warned his actions might one day get him in serious trouble.

It was August 2018 and Arbery was visiting his grandmother in Burke County, some 160 miles north of his Brunswick-area home. He had been spotted by a woman looking in car windows and then walking around her yard.

After police were called and arrived at the scene, Arbery refused to stop so they followed him to his grandmother’s home. The officer, Burke County sheriff’s Deputy Jerry Jones, didn’t think Arbery was acting rationally, so he spoke to the older woman, with Arbery standing nearby.

“Some of those folks there take that real seriously,” the deputy told her, according to a recording from his body camera. “The last thing we need is him getting shot in somebody’s yard.”

Later, in a Glynn County courtroom, that same deputy explained to a judge why he gave that warning to Arbery and his grandmother. Some of the residents in that Burke County community had been victims of crime, and many have guns. “If Mr. Arbery walks into the wrong yard after someone was victimized, he could be a victim at that moment.”

On Feb. 23, 2020, an echo of that happened in Glynn County.

Greg McMichael, a former lawman living in the Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick, saw the 25-year-old Arbery running down McMichael’s street one afternoon and figured he was the man who had been entering a nearby home under construction. The middle-class, largely white community was on edge because there had been several cases of trespassing and some car break-ins, including a gun that was stolen weeks earlier from the truck of McMichael’s son, Travis.

Defense wants to use Ahmaud Arbery’s past in trial of men accused of killing him.

icon to expand image

The two McMichaels armed themselves and jumped into a truck, and were soon joined by a neighbor, Roddie Bryan, who gave chase in his own truck. They followed Arbery through the subdivision and eventually cornered him. Arbery tried running around the McMichaels’ truck and saw Travis standing on the front driver’s side, holding his shotgun. Arbery, undoubtedly terrified, ran around the front of the truck and charged Travis McMichael, probably believing his only chance for survival was a desperate dash at a man wielding a shotgun. Three blasts later, he lay facedown in the street dying.

Initially, Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill was called in from a neighboring district because the elder McMichael had worked for the Glynn County DA’s office as an investigator. Barnhill made a quick hometown decision, calling it a legit killing. He said Travis McMichael was simply defending himself. So no one was charged and Arbery was buried in Burke County, not far from his grandmother’s home.

A couple of months after the killing, the video of Arbery’s death, taken by Bryan from his truck during the chase, was released and the case blew up. The story that took hold after his death was that this was a terrible case of racial hate put on full display: Here was a Black man chased and killed by suspicious-minded whites simply because he was running through a neighborhood some thought he shouldn’t have been in.

“I Run with ‘Maud” became a rallying cry. The case was called a modern-day lynching, and presidential candidate Joe Biden tweeted that Ahmaud was “killed in cold blood.”

The McMichaels were arrested and charged with murder. A few weeks later, George Floyd was killed by a cop in Minneapolis and the Arbery case was nudged from national headlines.

Now the Georgia case is again front and center as the McMichaels and Bryan, who was arrested later, go on trial Monday, charged with murder in Arbery’s death.

A painting of Ahmaud Arbery is displayed during a vigil at New Springfield Baptist Church on Feb. 23, 2021 in Waynesboro, Ga. Arbery, a Black man, was shot and killed while jogging near Brunswick, Ga., after being chased by three white men. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: TNS

As is everything in real life, reality differs from simple explanations.

The defense has been trying to chip away at the well-entrenched story of a Black man killed because he was jogging, attempting to bring forward their own narrative of a troubled young man who had several run-ins with the law and lingering mental issues. It’s key to their strategy of self-defense that the defendants were simply trying to detain, until police arrived, a man they suspected of breaking into cars and illegally entering a home.

The defense has tried, unsuccessfully, to get into evidence some of Arbery’s scrapes with the law, like the trespassing case mentioned above and his propensity to get angry and run away from cops. They still hope to enter evidence that he was on probation.

Jason Sheffield, Travis McMichael’s lawyer, told the court, “The story of the case we have is an innocent jogger who was followed and brutally attacked with no reason whatsoever. We’re talking about relevance, about what’s the inherent truth of what was happening” in the defendants’ minds.

The judge turned down the defense aims to get Arbery’s criminal past or mental records into evidence, saying the defendants had no idea of his past, so it shouldn’t have entered their minds as a reason for chasing and, ultimately, killing him. It was certainly a blow to the defense.

Linda Dunikoski, the lead prosecutor, calls the defense strategy a case of victim blaming. “With a self-defense case, you cannot start it,” she said in court. “If you’re the aggressor, you cannot go ahead and murder somebody.”

She later said Arbery running away and then ultimately struggling with Travis McMichael “was commonsense fight or flight. What Mr. Arbery did was he fled because he was under no legal obligation whatsoever to stay and talk with strangers who were trying to hit him with their pickup trucks and shoot him with their shotgun.”

At the time, Georgia had a “citizen’s arrest” law that said a person could detain a suspect if that person had direct knowledge someone had committed a felony. It seems the elder McMichael acted on an immediate hunch to get the posse going, which in retrospect seems, at best, a stupid, reckless action to arm up and chase Arbery, old-West vigilante style.

The fact that the defendants have made racially charged statements and slurs in the past will undoubtedly hurt them if allowed to enter as evidence. It almost certainly got the feds to bring separate hate crime charges against them.

Demonstrators protest the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery at the Glynn County Courthouse on May 8, 2020, in Brunswick, Georgia. Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael were arrested the previous night and charged with murder. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images/TNS)

Credit: TNS

icon to expand image

Credit: TNS

The case has now become a modern passion play on race in America. I called around to some defense attorneys to see how this case would play out.

Steve Sadow said the judge was certain to undercut the defense case because “everyone from the public, to the prosecutor to the judge can only accept one verdict, otherwise they’ll be castigated.”

The innocent jogger scenario, said the Atlanta lawyer, “is the only narrative the public can be told because of public perception of what happened. It’s unthinkable there might be another narrative of criminal behavior of a young Black man because that’s what the public cannot hear at this time.”

Mawuli Davis, a civil rights attorney who joined in a march in this case, said prosecutors “will have to frame the case as vigilantes working on a search-and-destroy mission and that they in no way had the authority to do this.

“There is a tradition of white men having agency and authority over Black bodies, and they will have to try to get a jury that does not look at it from that lens,” Davis continued. “Juries express the values of a community. What truth will they speak?”

Criminal defense attorney Bruce Harvey said, “Each community has its own personality. Justice is not a single, definitive ideal. It’s determined by the politics of the place, by the judge, by the DA. There is no specific measurement. That’s the ambiguity of our system.”