BRUNSWICK, Ga. – Three men charged in the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old man running through their neighborhood, faced a judge Thursday morning in Glynn County.
After hours of arguments from lawyers for the men involved, Magistrate Judge Wallace E. Harrell decided the charges would not be dismissed and the case would proceed to trial.
Defense attorneys requested the preliminary probable cause hearing, which compels prosecutors to prove whether they have probable cause to charge the men with murder.
Greg McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis McMichael, 34, are charged with felony murder and aggravated assault.
The neighbor who filmed a video showing the shooting, 50-year-old William “Roddie” Bryan, was also arrested and charged with felony murder and illegally using a vehicle to try to confine and detain Arbery.
During his opening and closing statements, state prosecutor Jesse Evans said Arbery was chased, hunted down an ultimately “executed.”
A GBI investigator was the only person who took the stand Thursday.
GBI Special Agent-in-Charge Richard Dial went through a descriptive timeline of the known events the led up to the death of Arbery at the hands of Travis McMichael, who fired three shots during a confrontation with Arbery, Dial said.
Among the details shared, Dial said that Bryan told investigators he overheard Travis McMichael use an expletive along with a racial slur to describe Arbery following the fatal shooting. Dial said he has also seen “many” other examples of Travis McMichael using the “n-word” on social media.
The GBI agent is filling in a lot of gaps of the more than four minutes that #AhmaudArbery was running through Satilla Shores. The agent says Roddie Bryan tried to repeatedly cut off Arbery, including when Arbery was running out of the neighborhood. @wjxt4— Kelly Wiley (@KellyWileyNews) June 4, 2020
Lee Merritt, attorney for Arbery family, said Thursday the new evidence should be instructive to the FBI investigation into Federal Hate Crime charges.
“Testimony inadvertently put on record by Defense counsel for Travis McMichael established that his client was a well known violent racist who regularly used racial epithets and made terroristic threats to black people,” Merritt tweeted during the hearing.
Defense attorneys for both the McMichaels have said much remains unknown about what led to the shooting and have cautioned against rushing to judgment. An attorney for Bryan has said he was merely a witness to Arbery’s death.
One of the district attorneys who first handled the case against the McMichaels said there was no probable cause to charge either of them because the pair were protected under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law.
Dial said a mix of video, witnesses statements and statements from the three men charged were used to determine the sequence of events that happened on Feb. 23.
On the day of the shooting, Dial said surveillance video showed Arbery walking around an open construction site in the Satilla Shores neighborhood where all three defendants lived. Arbery, who was described by friends and family as an avid runner, then left the construction site and started running down the street, Dial said.
That’s when he was spotted by Greg McMichael who was working in his front yard. Greg McMichael later told investigators he recognized Arbery from a previous video he had seen from February that showed somebody that was inside the house under construction. McMichael then alerted his son, Travis, and both grabbed guns and hopped in Travis’s white Ford F-150 to pursue Arbery.
The owner of the home under construction later told investigators nothing was stolen from the property. Dial said Greg McMichael told investigators he didn’t know if Arbery had stolen anything or not that day “but his instinct told him he was the one responsible for thefts in the neighborhood.”
Greg McMichael armed himself with the Smith and Wesson 686 357 Magnum revolver, a gun that was issued to him by the Glynn County Police Department, and Travis McMichael armed himself with a Remington 870 pump, 12 gauge pump-action shotgun, Dial said. The McMichales told investigators they grabbed guns because they believed Arbery was armed.
Investigators found that Bryan later joined the pursuit and along with the McMichaels tried to repeatedly cut off Arbery, including when Arbery was trying to run out of the neighborhood.
Bryan and the McMichaels were eventually able to box Arbery in, Dial said, which led to the deadly confrontation. Dial said Travis McMichael fired three shots that hit Arbery twice in the chest and once in the wrist during a fight. Cellphone video recorded by Bryan showed much of what happened in the seconds before Arbery collapsed onto the road.
The defense attorney for Travis McMichael brought up the mental state of Arbery when questioning Dial. Arbery had been diagnosed with a mental illness, Dial said, but he was not sure of the particular name of the diagnosis. He added that Arbery was not, at the time, under treatment for any mental illness.
Defense attorney Jason Sheffield said it’s relevant because it could mean the difference between self-defense and felony murder.
“I don’t believe it was self-defense for Mr. McMichael, I believe it was self-defense for Mr. Arbery,” Dial said. “I think Mr. Arbery was trying to get away, he couldn’t, so he chose to fight.”
Dial said the investigation revealed that Bryan also has shared racist views with others.
“There’s evidence of Roddie Bryan’s racist attitude in his communications," Dial said in response to a question from Bryan’s attorney. “And from that, I extrapolate the reason why he made the assumption he did that day of what was occurring. He saw a man running down the road with a truck following and I believe he made certain assumptions that were at least in part, based upon his racial bias.”
During closing comments, Travis McMichael’s attorney said issues in the neighborhood, such as thefts, led to the incident and that Travis McMichael used self-defense when Arbery attacked him.
Kevin Gough, an attorney for Bryan, said his client was minding his own business on his porch and did what “any patriotic American would do,” when he joined in the pursuit of Arbery, adding that there is no proof his client had the intent to commit false imprisonment.
Evans later countered that argument by calling it “asinine.”
“Any American would have called 911,” Evans said.
Judge Harrell eventually made the determination that authorities have enough evidence for murder charges in Arbery’s killing to send the case to a trial. It’s unclear when that trial will begin.
A different judge will have to decide whether to allow the men to go free on bond.
The McMichaels’ arrests came May 7, two days after cellphone video of the shooting leaked online and stirred a national outcry and the case was handed over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
It was the first time all three men were in court together since their arrests.
As the hearing was taking place inside the courtroom, demonstrators gathered outside in the rain to call for “justice.”
The crowd chanting "no bond" outside the Glynn County Courthouse is demanding that Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. stay in jail during court proceedings. @wjxt4 #News4Jax pic.twitter.com/3Ti7qynOas— WJXT4 Joe McLean (@JoeMcLeanNews) June 4, 2020
It appeared to be nearly 100 people demanding that the case go to trial and that the judge not grant bond to the three men.
Court security posted outside the building kept an eye on the peaceful demonstration.
News4Jax spoke to some of the activists who said this case is about more than just what happened on Feb. 23.
“This has been happening for so long to young, black men. I couldn’t sit down,” said Irma Soto. “It just pulled on my heartstrings. There’s no justice and we just have to stand up and fight back if we expect a change.”
The protest in Brunswick comes as protests have been erupting across the country after the death of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer.
The desire of the protesters outside the courthouse is for an eventual conviction of the McMichaels and of Bryan and many are calling for severe, even capital punishment.