Two of the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery repeatedly used racial slurs in text messages and social media posts, including violent comments about Black people, an FBI agent has testified in a United States courtroom.
Travis McMichael, who along with his father and neighbour is on trial on federal hate crime charges, left a racist digital footprint dating back to at least 2013, FBI agent Amy Vaughan told a US court in Georgia on Wednesday.
The evidence was taken from the cell phones of Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Arbery with a shotgun in February 2020, and neighbour William ‘Roddie’ Bryan, who recorded the shooting. The FBI also uncovered racist posts that Travis’s father, Greg McMichael, had made on Facebook.
All three men were convicted of murder in a Georgia state court last year, and testimony in their federal hate crimes case began on Monday.
The McMichaels had armed themselves and used a pick-up truck to chase Arbery as he jogged on a public street through their coastal Georgia neighbourhood, while Bryan joined the pursuit. The 25-year-old’s killing spurred mass protests demanding an end to racism and vigilantism in the US.
Prosecutors say the McMichaels and Bryan violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he was Black, while defence attorneys have insisted the deadly pursuit was motivated by an earnest, though erroneous, suspicion that Arbery had committed crimes.
Outside the courtroom, Arbery’s family said they were disgusted by what they had seen but that the evidence was not surprising, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper reported.
“I ain’t really in shock,” his father, Marcus Arbery, told the newspaper. “I knew all that hate was in those men … It’s hard, but I’m just glad the world can see this.”
In text and Facebook conversations with friends, Travis McMichael frequently used the N-word to describe Black people, according to the FBI. In a Facebook conversation with a friend, he shared a video of a young Black boy dancing on a TV show with a racist song that included the N-word playing over it.
McMichael said that Black people “ruin everything” and said more than once he was glad he was not a Black person, using a racial slur.
In other social media posts, McMichael mentioned violence against Black people. In December 2018, he commented on a Facebook video of a Black man playing a prank on a white person: “I’d kill that f***ing n***r.”
In June 2017, he shared a TV news story about a violent confrontation between two white women and two Black customers upset about cold food at a Georgia restaurant, using a racial slur to comment that he would beat the Black people “to death if they did that to [name redacted by the FBI] or my mother and sister”. He added that he would have no more remorse than putting down a rabid animal.
Bryan also used the N-word, but his preferred slur was a derogatory characterisation of a Black person’s lips. Over several years, Bryan exchanged racist messages on Martin Luther King Jr Day that mocked the US holiday commemorating the civil rights leader.
In messages sent in the days surrounding Arbery’s killing, Bryan also was upset that his daughter was dating a Black man.
Travis McMichael’s attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, said some of his texts and posts lacked context, and “you can’t hear that inflection of voice and see what’s going on”.
Copeland asked Derek Thomas, who posted the prank video that elicited the violent comment from Travis McMichael, about their long friendship. Thomas testified that they have known each other since high school and frequently went hunting and fishing together. He said he often checks up on McMichael’s mother since the McMichaels’ arrests and convictions.
“Is it fair to say you love the man but hate the words he used?” Copeland asked Thomas. He replied: “Yes, ma’am.”
Travis and Greg McMichael had previously agreed with prosecutors to plead guilty in the hate crimes trial in exchange for 30-year prison sentences, but a judge rejected the deal citing objections by Arbery’s family.
The McMichaels and Bryan are already serving life in prison for Arbery’s murder.