Three white men from the US state of Georgia are set to appear before a federal judge on federal hate-crime charges in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot after being spotted running in the defendants’ neighbourhood in February 2020.
Arraignments before US Magistrate Judge Benjamin Cheesbro are set for Tuesday afternoon, with federal prosecutors moving ahead with their case as a trial on state murder charges is still pending against the three defendants: Greg McMichael, his adult son Travis McMichael, and neighbour William “Roddie” Bryan.
A Georgia judge has set a trial in the state’s case for October and will hear pretrial motions later this week.
Arbery’s killing preceded a summer of racial justice protests across the US, stoking particular outrage over the fact the defendants remained free for two months after the incident.
The men were not charged with murder until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police after mobile phone footage of the killing – taken by Bryan – emerged.
On February 23 of last year, the McMichaels, who had armed themselves, pursued Arbery, who was unarmed, in a pick-up truck after he ran past their home, according to authorities.
Bryan followed in another vehicle and took mobile phone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.
On April 28 of this year, the Justice Department also charged both McMichaels and Bryan with violating Arbery’s civil rights as well as attempted kidnapping for using their trucks and guns to try to detain him. The McMichaels were also charged with using firearms in the commission of a crime.
The federal indictment says all three men illegally used force to “injure, intimidate and interfere with” the young Black man “because of Arbery’s race and color”.
If convicted of interfering with Arbery’s rights, they could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Civil War-era law repealed
Defence lawyers for the McMichaels and Bryan insist they committed no crimes.
Lawyers for the McMichaels have said they chased Arbery because they suspected he was a burglar who had been recorded on video inside a nearby home under construction. They say Travis McMichael shot Arbery fearing for his life as they grappled over a shotgun.
Prosecutors say Arbery was merely out jogging and there is no evidence Arbery stole anything from the home.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley on Friday ordered that jury selection in the state case will begin on October 18, with the McMichaels and Bryan standing trial once a jury gets seated.
The judge has scheduled hearings on 12 pretrial motions for Wednesday and Thursday.
Walmsley must decide whether the trial jury should be allowed to hear unflattering evidence of Arbery’s prior run-ins with law enforcement as well as racist text messages and social media posts made or shared by the men who chased and killed him.
On Monday, Georgia’s Governor Brian Kemp repealed a Civil War-era law that permitted citizens to make arrests if a crime is committed in their presence. The law had been cited by a prosecutor initially assigned to Arbery’s case to argue that the shooting was justified.
Civil rights advocates say the law is steeped in racism and had been used to justify the lynching of Black people.
In May 2020, Georgia’s attorney general announced an investigation into the local prosecutors who initially handled the case of Arbery’s killing – Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson and Waycross District Attorney George Barnhill – for prosecutorial misconduct. Johnson had a conflict of interest because she had previously worked with the elder McMichael, a retired police officer. She had referred the case to Barnhill, who, it later emerged, also had a connection to McMichael.
Barnhill later concluded after meeting with Glynn county police that the trio had not committed a crime.
Last month, a jury in Minneapolis, Minnesota convicted former police officer Derek Chauvin of the second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter for the May 25, 2020 killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man.