The man who fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery had previously used racial slurs in a text message and on social media, a prosecutor said Thursday as a judge weighed whether to grant bond for the defendant and his father.
Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, have been jailed since their arrests in May, more than two months after Arbery was killed.
The McMichaels, who are white, chased and fatally shot the 25-year-old Black man after they spotted him running in their neighbourhood just outside the port city of Brunswick.
Questions about whether racism played a role in the killing sharpened during a previous hearing when an investigator testified that a third defendant, who took mobile phone video of the shooting, told authorities he heard Travis McMichael, 34, utter a racial slur after he blasted Arbery three times with a shotgun.
In the courtroom on Thursday, Zachary Langford – a friend of Travis McMichael’s since boyhood – testified his friend was a jokester who got along with everyone and had at least one Black friend.
Then, prosecutor Jesse Evans asked Langford about a text message Travis McMichael had sent him last year that used a slur for Black people when referring to a “crackhead … with gold teeth”.
Langford at first said he did not recall receiving the message. Then, after reviewing a transcript of the exchange, he answered, “He was referring to a raccoon, I believe.”
Evans also cited a photo Langford posted to Facebook last year to which Travis McMichael replied, “Sayonara,” along with an offensive term for Asians followed by an expletive. Langford said he did not recall that, either.
Defence lawyers for both McMichaels have denied any racist motives in the shooting. Right after the February 23 shooting, Gregory McMichael told police that he and his son armed themselves and got in a pick-up truck to pursue Arbery because they suspected he was a burglar.
Prosecutors said Arbery was merely jogging when the McMichaels pursued him. Their defence lawyers insisted in court Thursday that is not true.
“We have substantial evidence that, on the day in question, Mr Arbery was not a jogger,” said Robert Rubin, one of Travis McMichael’s lawyers. “He was there for nefarious purposes.”
Rubin gave no evidence in court that Arbery was doing anything wrong the day he was shot.
Langford’s wife, Ashley Langford, testified that Travis McMichael expressed remorse about shooting Arbery.
“He told me he wished it never happened like that,” she said. “He prayed for Ahmaud’s mother and his family daily.”
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley made no decision on bond for either of the McMichaels. He was still hearing testimony Thursday afternoon.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said outside the Glynn County court that the McMichaels should remain jailed pending trial because “those guys are dangerous.” She also said she doubted they had regrets.
“I live right there in the community,” Cooper-Jones said. “Nobody reached out to say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ I don’t think they are remorseful at all.”
The McMichaels were not arrested until the mobile phone video of the shooting leaked online and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case. In June, a grand jury indicted both McMichaels and a neighbour, William “Roddie” Bryan, on charges.
Each is charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Travis McMichael’s mother, Lee McMichael, testified that he lived with her and his father, has a four-year-old son and does not have a passport. His lawyers cited his past service as a US Coast Guard mechanic as proof of his character.
“In no way, shape or form is Travis hateful towards any group of people, nor does he look down on anyone based on race, religion or beliefs,” Curt Hall, a former Coast Guard roommate of Travis McMichael who described himself as “multiracial”, wrote in a letter supporting bond for his friend.
Gregory McMichael, 64, is a retired investigator for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit district attorney’s office and a former Glynn County police officer.
The McMichaels’ lawyers are also asking the judge to reject the indictment’s malice murder charge, saying it was written in a way that improperly “charges two crimes in one count”. They made a similar argument for tossing out a charge of criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Bryan was previously denied bond. His lawyer has argued in court motions that the entire indictment should be dismissed.