Racially Charged US Trial Weighs Murder or Self-Defense

The emotional and racially charged trial of three white men accused of killing an African American jogger focused on whether the tragic shooting was an act of murder or self-defense.

Day Four of the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial in Brunswick, Georgia, on Wednesday centered on accounts of police officers who responded to the scene, and a neighbor who told the jury he called the police on Arbery.

Gregory McMichael, 65, his son Travis McMichael, 35, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, are accused of chasing down Arbery and killing him in a Brunswick, Georgia, suburb in February 2020.

In addition to felony murder and aggravated assault, the three Georgia men are charged with attempted kidnapping and a federal hate crime for allegedly racially profiling 25-year-old Arbery.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty, contending they suspected Arbery, who was out on a jog, of fleeing a crime when they pursued him in vehicles and shot him on a street in their predominantly white neighborhood.

Travis McMichael was captured on Bryan’s cellphone video confronting Arbery with a shotgun. The two are seen struggling before Arbery reached for the gun and was shot three times. 

At the Glynn County (Georgia) Superior Court, Matthew Albenze, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, testified he called police after he saw Arbery outside a home under construction.

‘A suspicious Black man’

Albenze told a nonemergency police operator he could see “a suspicious Black man in a white T-shirt” entering the home.

“I just need to know what he was doing wrong,” the operator asked, according to a recording played in court. “He’s been caught on camera a bunch before. It’s kind of an ongoing thing out here,” Albenze told the operator, saying Arbery was now running off the property.

Gregory McMichael told the police that Arbery was running fast through the neighborhood when he first spotted him. The defendants said they thought Arbery was a burglary suspect when they attempted to make a citizen’s arrest. A police officer testified on Tuesday, however, that the defendants never told him they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest.

Prosecutors maintained the men “assumed the worst” of Arbery as he ran through the neighborhood, which had experienced some recent break-ins of cars.

The jury, made up of 11 white people and one Black person, saw CCTV video of Arbery walking into a home construction site before the shooting, but he didn’t take anything before walking away. Video also captured a white couple looking around the same construction site as Arbery, but they were never confronted.

Some court observers believe the defendants will have a difficult time proving their case.

“Not only did Greg McMichael or the others not witness Arbery committing a crime, they did not have reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred,” said Areva Martin, a civil rights attorney, in a televised interview on the HLN cable network. “This is not going to be sufficient evidence by any standard to support their defense that they had a right to try to stop, detain or arrest Ahmaud Arbery.” 

Inside the courtroom, police officer Jeff Brandeberry, who responded to the scene, said Greg McMichael told him he shouted at Arbery to stop before Travis McMichael confronted Arbery with a gun. 

Brandeberry also testified that Gregory McMichael got blood on himself because he moved Arbery’s arm as he lay on the ground after the shooting, to check him for a weapon.

Arbery was unarmed.

“I didn’t know if he had a weapon or not,” Greg McMichael said, explaining why he touched Arbery’s body, according to the transcript Brandeberry read to the court.

Lengthy legal battle

Arbery’s death sparked nationwide protests last year after police did not charge the suspects for more than two months after the video of his killing was leaked and went viral on social media.

Following the arrest, former District Attorney Jackie Johnson was accused by the state attorney general’s office of “knowingly and willfully” hindering police officers from arresting Travis McMichael. It also alleges that Johnson showed “favor and affection” to Gregory McMichael, who was a former employee of the district attorney’s office.

Johnson, who denied any wrongdoing in her handling of the case, was voted out of office last year following a national uproar over the case. Two other prosecutors recused themselves from the case.

The trial was also delayed over scrutiny of the jury selection and the racial makeup of the panel. The almost entirely white jury was selected even though 26% of residents in Glynn County are Black, according to Census Bureau data.

In an interview with CBS News last month, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she believed her son was targeted because of his race.

“This trial means a lot to me, thinking back to when Ahmaud was first killed,” she said. “We went through three prosecutors. We went through no arrests. And we finally made it this far.”

The trial is expected to last several weeks. If convicted, all three men face life in prison.

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