Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, was fatally shot while jogging in February 2020. Father and son Gregory, as well as Travis McMichael and William Bryan, have been tried in state trial for murder and federal hate crimes.
In a pre-trial hearing on Wednesday, attorneys argued that they would provide evidence of Arbery’s criminal convictions and confrontations with law enforcement over the seven-year period that led to his murder in a coastal subdivision in Georgia.
Prosecutors argued that Arbery’s criminal record was in no way relevant to the actions the three men took that day, armed with guns and chased around the subdivision with pickups.
The McMichaels said they believed Arbery broke into a house under construction in their neighborhood and, using Georgian Law on Arresting Former Citizens, tried to arrest him for police on the day of his death. Prosecutors have denied that Arbery stole anything from the house under construction.
“You can’t claim self-defense once you started doing this,” replied Cobb District Attorney General Linda Dunikoski.
The arguments in court
On the witness stand, Rod Ellis, the Glynn County Schools police chief, testified Wednesday that Arbery brought a gun to a high school basketball game in 2013. Initially, Arbery fled when police tried to stop him, but he was arrested after a brief hiatus from the chase. Arbery pleaded guilty to a trial and received five years probation.
Another official testified that he arrested Arbery after trying to steal a television in 2017. Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, argued that this and other incidents in which Arbery was not arrested indicated that when confronted with authorities, Arbery was agitated and often tried to flee, suggesting that his actions followed a pattern reflected.
The defense then moved on to another controversial issue – questions about Arbery’s mental wellbeing – and said the information should be included as evidence.
The defense called a nurse who had assessed Arbery’s mental health in a single assessment in late 2018. In her testimony, she admitted that she kept her diagnosis vague so that a more qualified person would make a more accurate diagnosis.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told CNN she refused to hear the defense bring up her son’s past as if he were the one on trial. “Regardless of what we heard today, Ahmaud didn’t do anything wrong on February 23,” she said. “Nothing will surprise me when I come from the defendants.”
Supreme Court Justice Timothy Walmsley ordered the information sealed and said he would examine it privately before deciding whether to use either Arbery’s criminal history or his sanity as evidence.
McMichaels defenders also argued Thursday to prevent up to 1,500 McMichaels phone calls from being used by prosecutors in court.
A deputy from the Glynn County Sheriff’s Office testified Thursday that all phone calls except calls to lawyers are automatically recorded. The calling system in place at the Glynn County Detention Center notifies callers that phone calls are being recorded.
Walmsley said he would decide at a later date which pieces of evidence would and would not be allowed at the trial.
Arbery killed while jogging
The three men were charged with federal hate crimes on April 28 and were not guilty on Tuesday. The McMichaels are each exposed to an additional number of weapons used in connection with a violent crime. She also pleaded not guilty of these charges.
According to the federal prosecutor’s office, the three men “used violence and threats of violence to intimidate and impair Arbery’s right to use a public road because of his race.”
While Arbery was jogging, “the McMichaels armed themselves with firearms, got into a truck and chased Arbery through the neighborhood public streets while yelling at him, using their truck to cut off his route and threatening him with firearms,” prosecutors said .
Bryan cut off Arbery’s route with his truck, prosecutors said.
“All three defendants tried to unlawfully seize and imprison Arbery by chasing him in their trucks to restrain him, restrict his freedom of movement, restrict and detain him against his will, and prevent his escape,” the Justice Department said in a press release .
Video footage of Bryan’s fatal shooting shows Arbery and Travis McMichael arguing before three shots can be heard. Blood appears on Arbery’s shirt under his left chest. He trips and falls in the middle of the two-lane road.
The men remain in state custody.