Prosecutor outlines Arbery killers’ use of racial slurs
By Tariro Mzezewa, Audra D.S. Burch and Richard Fausset
The prosecutor in the federal hate crimes trial for the men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery began her case earlier this week with a raw litany of the defendants’ past expressions of racism, key evidence in the government’s case that the men chased Arbery through their Georgia neighborhood because he was Black.
The racist statements detailed in court Monday were not directed at Arbery himself. But they were exceptionally harsh, a fact that even defense lawyers acknowledged. Bobbi Bernstein, a lawyer with the Justice Department’s civil rights division, said that among other evidence of racism, the government planned to show that Travis McMichael, the man who fatally shot Arbery, had referred to Black people as “animals,” “criminals,” “monkeys” and “subhuman savages.”
The ugliness of such evidence was widely anticipated, having been hinted at in court filings in the earlier state trial. In that case, the three white men — McMichael, 36, his father Gregory McMichael, 66, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — were given life sentences, with the McMichaels denied the possibility of parole.
In the federal case, the defendants face up to life in prison, meaning guilty verdicts could have practical ramifications if their state convictions are overturned on appeal. More broadly, the trial is notable for the way jurors will have to directly wrestle with questions of racism as a motive in a crime against a Black man — an issue that was largely skirted in the state trial and the trials in other recent high-profile crimes against Black people, including the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.
In the government’s opening statement, Bernstein said that the defendants “made assumptions about Ahmaud based on the color of his skin” on Feb. 23, 2020, as they chased him through their suburban neighborhood outside of the coastal city of Brunswick.
“At the end of the day, the evidence in this case will prove that if Ahmaud Arbery had been white, he would have gone for a jog,” she said, “and been home in time for Sunday supper.” Instead, she said, “he went out for a jog, and he ended up running for his life. Instead, he ended up bleeding to death, alone and scared, in the middle of the street.”
The lawyers for the three men Monday acknowledged to the jurors that their clients had said racist things in the past. However, they said, this did not mean they had violated a federal hate crimes statute.
A.J. Balbo, a lawyer for Gregory McMichael, called Arbery’s death “an American tragedy.” But Balbo argued that his client did not racially profile Arbery; rather, he said, he had good reason to pursue Arbery specifically after Arbery triggered suspicions by repeatedly entering a home under construction in the neighborhood.
McMichael chased Arbery, Balbo said, “not because he was a Black man, but because he was the man.”
More than 1,000 people spread across 43 counties received jury summonses for the federal trial. By Monday morning, the group had been whittled down to 12 jurors and four alternates. Of the dozen people selected for the main panel, eight are white, three are Black and one is Hispanic. They include a cook, a social worker, a stay-at-home father, a former cosmetology worker and an air-traffic controller.
In the earlier murder trial in state court, 11 of the 12 jurors were white. Before the murder convictions, the racial lopsidedness had raised questions about whether justice would be served.
The federal jury is charged with determining not whether the men committed murder but whether they deprived Arbery of his right to use a public street because he was Black. The men are also charged with attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels are charged with one count each of using a weapon during a violent crime.
Bernstein laid out her case for racial bias for each man. Travis McMichael, she said, had referred to Black people as “niggers” on numerous occasions. Bryan, she said, had used the word to describe a Black man dating his daughter. And Bernstein described a time that Gregory McMichael had ranted against Black people to a work colleague and described his animosity toward civil rights leader Julian Bond, who had recently died.
Bond, McMichael said, “should have been put in the ground years ago. He was nothing but trouble. Those Blacks are nothing but trouble.”
It was difficult to gauge the jury members’ reactions to such language because they were wearing masks. Reactions were more identifiable among some of Arbery’s family members. Arbery’s aunt, Diane Arbery Jackson, shook her head and left the courtroom as Bernstein read a message Travis McMichael sent to a friend responding to a video of a Black man sticking a firecracker up his nose.
It would have been “cooler,” McMichael replied, using a racial slur, if the firecracker had blown the man’s head off.
On Monday, defense lawyers seemed to acknowledge that the jurors were as likely as the lawyers themselves to find the overt expressions of racism to be abhorrent.
“I can’t stand before you today and say that my client never used the N-word,” said Amy Lee Copeland, a lawyer for Travis McMichael. She added: “Yes, you may think these words and these opinions are absolutely wrong. I do.”
But Copeland asked the jury to consider the context of this evidence of racism. Specifically, Copeland asked them to consider whether the racist comments were connected to any specific acts.
J. Pete Theodocion, a lawyer for Bryan, said that racism was among “the lowest form of human emotions.” But he said that his client had not been motivated by racism when, standing outside his house, he saw Arbery run down a street with the McMichaels chasing him in their truck and decided to join the pursuit.
Theodocion said his client thought that Arbery might have done something “tremendously serious” to warrant being chased by the two men.
“The natural assumption that he made, that anyone would make, was that they had to be chasing him for a reason,” Theodocion said.
A number of legal experts have said that it may prove difficult for prosecutors to prove that the men were motivated by racism if evidence is not presented to the jury that directly ties their racist beliefs to their actions that day.
But outside the courthouse Monday, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, said that she expects a victory for the prosecution. “I’m grateful we have made it this far,” she said.