Lawyers say client has been vilified in Ahmaud Arbery case

Father and son accused in Feb. 23 deadly shooting hire attorneys

Attorney Jason Sheffield. left, and his law firm partner, Robert Rubin, respond to questions from the press outside their office on Thursday, May 14, 2020, in Decatur, Ga. After a video of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery emerged on social media, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, on Wednesday, arrested Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis McMichael, 34, and they were jailed on murder and aggravated assault charges. The attorneys are representing Travis McMichael. (AP Photo/Ron Harris) (Ron Harris, Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Defense attorneys hired by the two Glynn County men accused of pursuing and killing Ahmaud Arbery said Thursday their clients have been vilified and caution against a rush to judgment in a case that has drawn national attention and an outcry over its handling.

Gregory and Travis McMichael, a father and son, are charged with aggravated assault and felony murder in the Feb. 23 death of the 25-year-old on a Satilla Shores road. The case drew national attention and outrage after a video of Arbery’s final moments that police had from the day of the shooting surfaced online last week. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called in to take over the seemingly stalled investigation and the McMichaels were arrested less than 48 hours later.

Travis McMichael, 34, has hired Decatur-based attorneys Bob Rubin and Jason Sheffield. They said at a news conference Thursday that their client has been vilified and urged people not to rush to judgment.

“What we’re asking and we’re imploring everybody for the sake of our communities is to just take a breath, let the facts develop, let the case play out where it should play out, which I think we can all agree, is in court -- not on TV shows, not in the press,” Rubin said. “We will be presenting our evidence in a court of law, whether it’s in Glynn County or someplace else. The government will have an opportunity to present its evidence in a court of law. And then, and only then, then you can judge.”

Criminal defense lawyers Jason Sheffield and Robert “Bob” Rubin speak about representing Travis McMichael, who is accused of fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery. (WJXT)

Rubin and Sheffield said that while the shooting itself was captured on video, much about events leading up to the deadly confrontation remains unknown.

“Right now we are starting at the end. We know the ending. What we don’t know is the beginning,” Sheffield said outside their metro Atlanta law office. “We’re listening to what the family has to say, but we’re also listening to the other witnesses in the community and we will be reviewing all of what we understand is out there."

Sheffield called Arbery’s death “a tragedy.”

“We know that there are strong opinions. We know that there is anger. We know that there is outrage. We are open to those opinions. We will listen to that outrage. We promise not to inject more volatility into this process as best we can control," Sheffield said. “Our commitment is to the truth, and we will seek it."

As the news conference ended, Rubin and Sheffield didn’t respond when asked who’s paying them.

Defense attorneys for both McMichaels said they plan to ask a judge to set bond so they can be released from jail pending trial. Sheffield said he expects that early hearings will be held virtually because of concerns about the coronavirus.

VIDEO: Defense attorneys hired by the two Glynn County men accused of pursuing and killing Ahmaud Arbery say their clients have been vilified and caution against a rush to judgment in a case that has drawn national attention and an outcry over its handling.

Laura and Frank Hogue, a husband and wife criminal defense team based in Macon, said they have been hired to represent 64-year-old Gregory McMichael.

“So often the public accepts a narrative driven by an incomplete set of facts, one that vilifies a good person, based on a rush to judgment, which has happened in this case,” Laura Hogue said in a statement released Thursday.

Both defense teams said they plan to schedule a preliminary hearing soon, where more of the truth will be revealed. That will likely be a virtual hearing as Georgia courts will be holding in-person sessions until sometime in June.

Three of the four newly hired attorneys are recent past presidents of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and one is the group’s current vice president. All four are experienced criminal defense attorneys.

Arbery’s mother said in an interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday that she has confidence in the investigation now that the GBI has taken it over from local police and the Cobb County district attorney has been called in as an independent prosecutor to handle it. She said she would like prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

Attorneys for Arbery’s mother and father on Thursday released the following statement regarding the news conference held by Travis McMichael’s attorneys:

"We agree with the attorneys for Travis McMichael that the justice system affords all citizens the presumption of innocence and that there shouldn’t be a rush to judgment or stereotyping. We only wish that their client, Travis McMichael, had provided that same presumption of innocence to Ahmaud Arbery before chasing and killing him. The men who ambushed Ahmaud Arbery rushed to judgment on February 23. Mr. Arbery is the victim and his family was left with a lifetime of pain. The family continues to pray for justice for Ahmaud.”

Less than two weeks before Arbery was shot, Travis McMichael sounded on edge the night of Feb. 11 when he called 911 to report a possible trespasser inside a house under construction in his subdivision.

“We’ve had a string of burglaries,” Travis McMichael says on the 911 recording. "I was leaving the neighborhood and I just caught a guy running into a house being built two houses down from me.''

Asked for a description, he says: “It’s a black male, red shirt and white shorts.” Calling from inside his truck, he sounds out of breath. The 911 operator asks: “Are you OK?”

“Yeah, it just startled me,” Travis McMichael replied. “When I turned around and saw him and backed up, he reached into his pocket and ran into the house. So I don’t know if he’s armed or not. But he looked like, he was acting like he was. So be mindful of that.”

He said he had never seen the person before in the neighborhood.

“But we’ve been having a lot of burglaries and break-ins around here,” Travis McMichael said on the 911 call. “I had a pistol stolen Jan. 1, actually.”

An attorney for the owner of the home being built, Larry English, released security camera video that briefly shows a man walk through the open-framed structure. It’s unknown if that man is Arbery.

Attorneys for Arbery’s family have said a man shown on security video inside the same house-in-progress Feb. 23 was Arbery -- and that the footage shows him committing no crimes. Arbery was killed soon after when the McMichaels spotted him running past their home.

More than two months passed before the McMichaels were arrested and the fact that it didn’t happen until after the video of the shooting became public caused many to draw parallels to other shootings of black men by white men in recent years.

“While the death of Ahmaud Arbery is a tragedy, causing deep grief to his family -- a tragedy that at first appears to many to fit into a terrible pattern in American life -- this case does not fit that pattern. The full story, to be revealed in time, will tell the truth about this case," Hogue, Gregory McMichael’s defense attorney, said in a statement.

According to an incident report by Glynn County police, Gregory McMichael, said he and his son armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after seeing him run down their street. Gregory McMichael told police he suspected Arbery was a burglar, and said he attacked Travis McMichael before he was shot in a struggle over the gun.

About the Authors:

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.