The Trial Over Ahmaud Arbery’s Killing

He was chased and shot to death on a residential street. But will a jury rule that he was murdered?

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Thursday, October 28th, 2021

Ahmaud Arbery had nowhere to run. He was hemmed in by William Bryan’s truck, which he was running away from. And he was running right into the trouble of the McMichaels.

Michael Barbaro

From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is The Daily.

[Music]

Today. In the coming days, a trial will begin to determine whether the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, by two armed white men, is considered murder under Georgia State law.

I spoke with my colleague, Richard Fausset, about why that may be a difficult case for prosecutors to make. It’s Thursday, October 28.

Michael Barbaro

Richard, as we prepare for this trial to begin, I wonder if you can describe the scene at the courthouse where the trial is going to take place in Georgia.

Richard Fausset

So, this trial is taking place in the small, coastal city of Brunswick, Georgia. The killing of Ahmaud Arbery took place just outside of town in a little subdivision there. And there’s just a lot of pain and anger still, over what happened.

[Crowd Noises]

And you can feel it in the voices of the people who’ve been gathering in front of the Glynn County Courthouse.

Female Speaker

We don’t want anyone to ever forget about Ahmad.

Richard Fausset

These are local people, and some people from out-of-state who’ve come. They’re chanting.

[Protestors Chanting]

They’re angry. They’re hurt. They’re calling for justice for Ahmaud Arbery.

[Protestors Chanting]

I said and we don’t get it, shut it down. I said and we don’t get it shut it down.

[Music]
Female News Anchor


12 jurors will eventually decide the guilt or innocence of Gregory McMichael, his son, Travis McMichael, and William Bryan.

[Music]
Richard Fausset

You can also really feel it inside the four walls of the courtroom.

Female News Anchor

The judge and attorneys are slowly and painstakingly making their way through a pool of hundreds of potential panelists.

Richard Fausset

You’ve got lawyers who are having a really hard time finding locals who aren’t connected to this case in some way.

Male Speaker

Brunswick, although not a small town, it’s a small city. And a lot of people do know a lot of people.

Richard Fausset

You have a number of people who’ve said that they know, or have worked with, the families of the three men accused of murder. A number of people who said they knew Ahmaud Arbery’s family.

Female Speaker

Potential juror 247 says it would be hard for them not to be found guilty.

Richard Fausset

It’s very hard to find people who haven’t formed some very strong opinions about it.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Female Speaker

All right, so we are out here now. We’re in Satilla Shores, this is the area that Ahmaud was running through.

Richard Fausset

And this week, a bus drove into the Satilla Shores neighborhood, that’s the subdivision where Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down.

Female Speaker

Here we are. I guess we’re going to start walking. As you can see—

Richard Fausset

The bus was full of relatives of Ahmaud and of supporters of the family. And they came to, kind of, have a moment of communion on this street where he was killed.

Female Speaker

—Brunswick, showing solidarity with the Ahmaud Arbery family.

Richard Fausset

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that one of the women on the bus referred to the spot as sacred ground.

Michael Barbaro

Mm.

[Music]

Richard, can you remind us what happened at this spot? At what this woman describes as this sacred ground.

Richard Fausset

Yeah. We have video footage that shows a lot of what happened that day. It was February 23, 2020. It was a Sunday, in the early afternoon. And we know that Ahmaud Arbery had come into the neighborhood of Satilla Shores.

There’s video footage that shows him walking into a house that’s under construction.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

Ahmaud lived a couple of miles away with his mom, across a freeway. And he was known around town as a habitual jogger. And so it wouldn’t have been weird or rare for him to be in this neighborhood on foot.

We know that he goes into this house, and it’s really just not clear why he’s in the house. He comes in, he looks around, he doesn’t take anything. And on this particular afternoon, a neighbor across the street calls 9-1-1, and reports that Ahmaud’s in the house.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

The caller says that Ahmad looks like a guy who’s been trespassing in the area before. And this neighborhood had been very much on edge about a number of property crimes that had been occurring there.

So, we know that Ahmaud eventually leaves the house, and he starts running down the street. And it’s at this point that a neighbor named Greg McMichael, who’s one of the three murder suspects in this case, he’s a former police officer with the Glynn County Police Department, very much known to the law enforcement apparatus there in this county.

He sees Ahmaud running down the street. He tells police that he grabbed his handgun, and he shouted to his son, Travis McMichael, who grabbed a shotgun. And these two men jump in a pickup truck, and they start chasing Ahmaud Arbery. And they say that they were screaming at him to stop, that they wanted to talk to him.

Greg McMichael, the father, is identified as a quote, witness, in this police report. The police officer interviews him and gets his version of events, takes his statement. But Greg McMichael is not arrested. Travis McMichael is not arrested.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

At some point, they’re joined by a neighbor, William Bryan, who’s the third murder suspect. He’s driving his own pickup truck, and the chase plays out on these maze-like streets in this little subdivision.

And it ends up, video footage shows, with Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael waiting there for Ahmaud Arbery, who’s kind of hemmed in now.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

And he’s approaching this pickup truck, where Greg McMichael is standing in the bed of it. And Travis McMichael is now standing outside of the truck, holding this shotgun.

[Music]

Travis McMichael then shoots Ahmaud Arbery. And shoots again. And soon you see Ahmaud trying to run a few more steps, but he crumples, there on the pavement. And that’s where he dies.

And so, the Glynn County Police show up to the scene. Greg McMichael, the father, is identified as a quote, witness, in this police report. The police officer interviews him and gets his version of events, takes his statement.

But Greg McMichael is not arrested. Travis McMichael is not arrested.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm.

Richard Fausset

William Bryant is not arrested that day.

Michael Barbaro

And why not?

Richard Fausset

Because there’s this argument that their actions are legal under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm. And what is that law? What does it say?

Richard Fausset

I’ll just read this crucial part of the law. The law said a private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence, or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a felony, and the offender is escaping, or attempting to escape, a private person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

This law dates back to 1863, to the Civil War era.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm.

Richard Fausset

And it’s been criticized for helping to create an atmosphere that allowed for the extrajudicial arrest and killing of hundreds of Black people in Georgia by white people, during perhaps the darkest period in Georgia’s history.

[T]his is the law that prosecutors would point to in arguing to the police that these three men should not be arrested… And that, additionally, Travis McMichael had acted in self-defense when he pulled the trigger, on the argument that Ahmaud Arbery, this unarmed man, had attacked him and tried to take his shotgun from him.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

But nonetheless, this is the law that prosecutors would point to in arguing to the police that these three men should not be arrested. That they had, in fact, acted in accordance with this law.

And that, additionally, Travis McMichael had acted in self-defense when he pulled the trigger, on the argument that Ahmaud Arbery, this unarmed man, had attacked him and tried to take his shotgun from him.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm. So just to be clear, these three men claim, and prosecutors are accepting the claim, that this was a legally justified citizen’s arrest, basically, gone bad.

Richard Fausset

That was the case for many weeks.


RELATED: (podcast) Arbery murder trial shines spotlight on troubled Glynn County law enforcement: Georgia Today


Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm. And then what happened?

Richard Fausset

So a few months later—

Female Speaker

This cell phone footage is believed to show Ahmaud Arbery jogging in a South Georgia neighborhood before coming upon two men in a truck.

Richard Fausset

The video of the confrontation and the killing emerges.

Female Speaker

The video, released yesterday, has brought national attention to the incident—

Richard Fausset

Filmed in fact, by William Bryan, the third murder suspect, who was in the second pickup truck.

Female Speaker

The 25-year-old tries to get around them, and then—

[Music]
Richard Fausset

It’s horrific to watch, and I think you can say there is widespread disgust over the whole thing.

Male Speaker

Earlier this week, I watched the video depicting Mr. Arbery’s last moments alive. I can tell you, it’s absolutely horrific. And Georgians deserve answers.

[Music]
Richard Fausset

And I remember, as it was all exploding, a Republican source of mine here in Georgia saying something like, my Twitter feed is full of ultra-conservative, white Georgia Republicans, and they’re all totally repulsed by all this.

Male Speaker 1

First district Congressman, Buddy Carter, is reacting to the case, saying in part, that the community is rightfully shaken and on edge. And the video footage and what’s been reported is deeply troubling. He says—

Male Speaker 2

You know, no one can look at the Arbery video and not come to the conclusion that this was hate.

Richard Fausset

And meanwhile, we have the killing of George Floyd, another unarmed Black man. And a lot of outrage emerging over the treatment of Black people in this country.

And in Georgia, in a state where it’s very difficult to get lawmakers and people on two sides of this political divide to agree on anything, you saw something really incredible start to happen. And that is this series of decisions to really, profoundly alter Georgia’s criminal code, as a result of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.

[Music]

The first big change comes when the Republican dominated state legislature, at the request of Governor Kemp, starts drawing up what would be Georgia’s first ever hate crimes law. Georgia, at the time, was one of only four states that did not have a state hate crimes law.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm.

Brian Kemp

Good afternoon, everyone. This is certainly an unprecedented moment in our state.

Richard Fausset

Brian Kemp, one of the most conservative Republican governors in the country, ends up signing this bill into law in June of 2020.

Brian Kemp

Georgians protested to demand action, and state lawmakers rose to the occasion.

Richard Fausset

And he was very explicit at the time, that this was a response to the Ahmaud Arbery killing.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm.

Richard Fausset

And in fact, at the time, and I’ll quote him. He called the killing a horrific, hate-filled act of violence.

Brian Kemp

We saw injustice with our own eyes.

Richard Fausset

But that wasn’t all.

Brian Kemp

Today we are replacing a Civil War era law, ripe for abuse.

Richard Fausset

What we subsequently saw, again, at Mr. Kemp’s request, was the state legislature moving to make serious changes to this controversial citizen’s arrest law.

Brian Kemp

To root out injustice, and set our state on a better path forward.

Richard Fausset

Once again, this bill received tremendous bipartisan—

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

—support in the Republican-controlled legislature. And these changes effectively gutted the citizen’s arrest law, removing a lot of the language that was initially used to justify the actions of these three white men, outside of Brunswick at the beginning of 2020.

Brian Kemp

We are honored to have Ahmaud’s mother, Miss Wanda Cooper Jones, and his sister join us today. On behalf of all Georgians, I want to thank you both for being here.

[Applause]
[Music]
Richard Fausset

There was some sense that something remarkable had happened here that you don’t often see after one of these horrific events. And that is, even though a lot of people call for substantive change after these kinds of things, you don’t always see it. And in this case, we actually saw it. We saw real, tangible, legal change.

But what’s really interesting, as we approach opening statements in this trial, is that all of these important and substantive changes are really likely to have very little effect on the outcome. And the question of whether or not these three men are innocent or guilty in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

[Music]
Michael Barbaro

We’ll be right back.

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Michael Barbaro

Richard, why would all of these changes to the law in Georgia, and culturally, with all these expressions of revulsion over what happened to Ahmaud Arbery, why would none of that be reflected in the trial of these three men who have been accused of murdering Arbery?

Richard Fausset

It’s because of the fact that in our legal system, the law that applies when you go to court, is the law that existed at the time of the incidents in question.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

And so, what we have is, in the case of the old citizen’s arrest law, a law that even though it’s not on the books, will be used as a pillar in the defense strategy. And when it comes to the hate crimes law, these three men can’t be charged under it because that law didn’t exist at the time that they committed these acts.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm. So for the purposes of this trial, the only thing that matters is what the law said on the day that Ahmaud Arbery was killed.

And so, what we have is, in the case of the old citizen’s arrest law, a law that even though it’s not on the books, will be used as a pillar in the defense strategy.

Richard Fausset

Exactly. And think about this. Here is this horrific act, it spurs landmark legislative change, and yet none of it really applies.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm.

Richard Fausset

It’s just— it’s like no case I’ve ever covered.

Michael Barbaro

And so, if these existing laws of February 2020 are the laws under which this case will be tried, what does that mean for the defense? How do we expect them to make their case with those laws being their North Star?

Richard Fausset

Well, there are a few things, in talking to the defense teams in this case, that are worth noting.

One of them is the fact that they believe, and they’re going to argue, that this case really had nothing to do with race or racism at all. That it was a well-meaning attempt to keep the peace in a neighborhood that had been troubled by a bunch of property crimes.

And flowing from that is this idea that the citizen’s arrest law should protect these guys. And that they should be seen as people who are trying to effectuate an arrest. And then that’s going to be tied with this argument that the shooting was an act of self-defense.

Ahmaud Arbery, this unarmed man—

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

Chased down by three men, two of whom were armed, was in fact, the aggressor in this case, based on the defense’s assertion that Ahmaud tried to grab Travis McMichael’s shotgun.

We think they’re going to say that Travis McMichael was, at that point, authorized to use deadly force in self-defense.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

And I think for a lot of people, it’s going to bring to mind the 2012 incident, in which George Zimmerman, the Florida neighborhood watch volunteer, engaged with yet another unarmed Black male, Trayvon Martin.

Michael Barbaro

Right.

Richard Fausset

That case went to trial in 2013. I think it was a second degree murder and manslaughter trial. And Mr. Zimmerman beat it. He was acquitted. And there are a lot of parallels.

In fact, I talked to Mark O’Mara, who was probably the best known lawyer who was working on the defense for Mr. Zimmerman.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm.

Richard Fausset

And he thinks that these guys have a good case. And he also pointed out some of the really, parallels here, that are just very difficult to escape.

Here, you have two cases of people arguing that they are not involved in some kind of racist hunting down of a person, but they were trying to protect their neighborhood.

You also have the self-defense case that’s going to be put forth by an armed person, claiming that they were threatened by the unarmed person that they were tailing. So he thinks that could be a successful legal strategy for these three guys, in the same way it was for George Zimmerman.

Michael Barbaro

What’s strange about that defense is that it turns people walking down the street, whether it’s Trayvon Martin or Ahmaud Arbery, into aggressors for responding to armed men who suddenly are pursuing them. And it says that the right to self-defense of those pursuers is greater than the right to self-defense of these two men walking down the street.

Richard Fausset

Well, I think that’s exactly the critique that a lot of people who would like to see a guilty verdict in this case would bring.

And yea. That is this sense that it is, arguably, nothing other than patently absurd to assume that an unarmed Black man running through a deep South neighborhood, pursued by white guys with guns, could in any universe be considered an aggressor.

But I think what the defense attorneys are going to do here, is hope that the jury applies a very close reading of the law—

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

To that very moment where these two men begin this altercation, on the hopes that they determine that there would be a threat to the lives—

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

—of these white men that justified the use of deadly force.

Michael Barbaro

Right. It seems like the prosecution is going to have to wrestle with this citizen’s arrest law as it was written originally, and as it was in place when Ahmaud Arbery was killed, at some point in this trial.

Do you have any sense of how the prosecution plans to talk about it? And to rebut the defense’s argument that these three men were following that law?

Richard Fausset

Well, in some of the prosecution’s filings, we see what appears to be an argument that’s going to push back against the idea that this old citizen’s arrest law should have been applied at all.

That law said, again, that a private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence, or within his immediate knowledge. And the offense also has to be a felony.

So in court filings, you have prosecutors saying that Ahmaud Arbery was chased down by men who are attempting to unlawfully detain him, even though, as they write, these men had not seen Mr. Arbery commit any crime on February 23rd of 2020. And they had no knowledge of any felony offense he had committed.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm.

Ahmaud Arbery had nowhere to run. He was hemmed in by William Bryan’s truck, which he was running away from. And he was running right into the trouble of the McMichaels.

Richard Fausset

I think prosecutors are also going to push back rather hard against the idea that Ahmaud Arbery was the aggressor.

They also write about how Ahmaud, at that moment, was unable to escape what prosecutors called, quote, the strange men who are chasing him. That Ahmaud Arbery had nowhere to run. He was hemmed in by William Bryan’s truck, which he was running away from. And he was running right into the trouble of the McMichaels.

And at that moment, when he veers around the side of the truck, he is, according to this argument, facing two possibilities. To confront the man with the shotgun, who is now standing a few feet away from him. Or, to turn his back on that man, and risk being shot in the back.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm.

Richard Fausset

But in general, I think the people who are watching this case closely, think that the prosecution is going to also have to hope that a jury looks beyond just these very specific moments. And one thing that seems likely to come up in this case, is the issue of race and the issue of racism.

A number of months ago, there was a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent who testified that William Bryan, the third murder suspect in the second truck, heard Travis McMichael use a racist slur, shortly after he shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery.

Michael Barbaro

Hmm.

Richard Fausset

And this same agent has also said that there were text messages and social media posts in which Travis McMichael used racial epithets.

Michael Barbaro

So that could be the basis, in theory, for a prosecutorial argument that the real motive here was racism, and not a citizen’s arrest seeking to detain someone who these men thought committed a burglary.

Richard Fausset

I think there’s just this very good chance that these kinds of issues are going to be introduced at trial. And I don’t know exactly how, but I think it’s going to make for some very painful, and very explosive moments over the course of this thing.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm. But Richard, if the jury does end up supporting the defense argument that under the original law, the unchanged law, everything that happened here was legal, what will that mean? And what will it mean to the people you saw standing in front of the courthouse? Or the people who went to visit that site and called it sacred ground?

Richard Fausset

That’s such a good question. And in some ways, if there is an acquittal in this case, it’s going to feel like a rerun of these certain kinds of cases.

Another case, wherein it appears that the people on trial, exercised, at least, spectacularly poor judgment. And committed acts that many people would, in fact, find to be morally unconscionable. But nonetheless, it could end up being determined that what they did was not, technically, illegal.

Michael Barbaro

Mm-hmm.

Richard Fausset

And it could be a very bitter pill for people to swallow.

[Music]
Michael Barbaro

And do you think that that pill is more bitter, given the political changes that have happened in Georgia since Ahmaud Arbery and because of Ahmaud Arbery? Or might that make this pill less bitter because those changes have, at least, occurred?

[Music]
Richard Fausset

I just don’t even know how to measure the bitterness. When you’re down there in Brunswick, Georgia, you’re reminded that this young man is dead. And he died before he could find a life partner, before he could have children, that he has no opportunity to mature and to grow old.

The pain is immeasurable, and I just don’t know if any change to any law can really serve as a balm for that kind of pain.

[Music]
Michael Barbaro

That justice for them, in the political sphere, may not be enough if they’re not able to get it themselves.

Richard Fausset

I just don’t know. A young man is dead. And he’s not coming back.

[Music]
Michael Barbaro

Richard, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

Richard Fausset

Thanks, Michael.

[Music]
Michael Barbaro

The murder trial is expected to begin as soon as next week. Regardless of the outcome, the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery will face a second trial next year on federal charges of hate crimes.

[Music]

We’ll be right back.

Here’s what else you need to know today.

On Wednesday night, Democratic lawmakers had yet to reach an agreement on what should be included in a major social spending bill, or even how to pay for it.

Democrats remain at odds over several key measures, such as expanding access to health care in states that refuse to adopt the Affordable Care Act, and offering paid family and medical leave to millions of Americans.

In a new setback, Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he opposed both the paid leave plan and a popular proposal for funding much of the bill by taxing the country’s billionaires. A proposal that Manchin said he found unfair.

Today’s episode was produced by Diana Nguyen, Lynsea Garrison and Eric Krupke. It was edited by Lisa Chow, with help from Paige Cowett. Engineered by Chris Wood.

And contains original music from Marion Lozano and Dan Powell. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly.

Special thanks to Emily Cochrane.

That’s it for The Daily. I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

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This is a transcript of the NYTimes’ podcast, The Daily, from October 28, 2021

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