Was Arbery killing a hate crime? Jury to hear dueling views

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) – Forward Ahmaud Arbery was chased by three white men in pickup trucks and shot dead on a residential street, the trio had expressed their hostility towards black people in text messages and social media posts laced with racial slurs.

Is this story of sectarian remarks prove that Arbery was the victim of a hate crime?

A jury of eight whites, three blacks and one Hispanic was hearing oral arguments from prosecutors Monday morning in U.S. District Court, where the hate crime trial in Arbery’s death began a week ago.

It has been nearly two years since Arbery, 25, died of two shotgun blasts on February 23, 2020, after a five-minute chase in the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside the port city of Brunswick . The killing was captured in graphic cellphone video that sparked outrage far beyond Georgia.

The basic facts of the case are not disputed. Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael armed themselves and chased Arbery in a van after he was spotted driving past their home on a Sunday afternoon. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase in his own truck and recorded video of Travis McMichael firing the fatal shots at close range.

GRAPHIC WARNING: The video may contain disturbing content.

The federal hate crimes trial in Arbery’s death has begun. (CNN, POOL, WSB, COURTESY OF S. LEE MERRITT|FAMILY PHOTOS|JASMINE ARBERY, AMATEUR VIDEO, GETTY IMAGES)

The McMichaels and Bryan were all convicted of murder last fall in Georgia state court. The US Department of Justice charged them separately in federal court with hate crimes, alleging the three men violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he was black. They are also charged with attempted kidnapping and the McMichaels are charged with using firearms in the commission of a crime.

Regardless of the outcome of the hate crimes case, the McMichaels have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole for their murder convictions. Bryan was also given a life sentence, with parole only possible after serving at least 30 years.

The federal hate crimes trial is about whether racism motivated Arbery’s prosecution and murder. Legal experts said it was harder to prove than the crime of murder. The McMichaels and Bryan have all pleaded not guilty.

Defense attorneys insisted the trio prosecuted Arbery based on a serious, albeit mistaken, suspicion that he had committed crimes in their neighborhood. Prior to the day of the shooting, security cameras had repeatedly recorded Arbery inside a house under construction a few doors down from the McMichaels’ home. Greg McMichael told police he recognized Arbery as he ran out of the same unfinished house the day of the shooting.

Yet those security videos showed Arbery taking nothing from the construction site. An officer told the McMichaels there was no evidence that he had stolen. Bryan, who knew nothing of the security footage, told investigators he assumed Arbery had done something wrong when he drove past Bryan’s house with the McMichaels in pursuit.

Prosecutors will likely argue that the three men suspected Arbery because he was black – and that their own past words show that bias was what sparked the deadly lawsuit.

FBI agents uncovered about two dozen racist text messages and social media posts by McMichael and Bryan in the years and months leading up to the shooting.

In 2018, Travis McMichael commented on a Facebook video of a black man pranking a white person: “I would kill that f—-ing n—-r.” Greg McMichael had posted a meme on Facebook saying white Irish “slaves” were treated worse than any race in US history. And for several years, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bryan wrote posts in which he mocked the holiday honoring the civil rights leader.

Some witnesses said they heard the McMichaels racist statements first hand. A woman who served under Travis McMichael in the US Coast Guard a decade ago has said he made crude sex jokes after learning she had dated a black man and called her “n— —r lover”. Another woman testified that Greg McMichael fumed in 2015 when she remarked on the death of civil rights activist Julian Bond, saying, “All those black people are just trouble.”

Defense attorneys did not dispute any of these statements. They closed their case on Friday after calling only one witness.

In July 2019, Greg McMichael called police to report that he and Travis McMichael had confronted a homeless man living under a nearby bridge who they suspected of committing robberies in their neighborhood. He did not mention the race of the man. Neighbor Lindy Cofer testified on Friday that she spotted a white man camping under the same bridge in 2019. She wasn’t sure if it was the same person the McMichaels reported to police.

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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