Judge orders Ahmaud Arbery’s mental health records sealed -- for now

Judge in state murder case wants more time before making final decision on evidence

Ahmaud Arbery
Ahmaud Arbery

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – A judge on Thursday ordered at a pretrial hearing that Ahmaud Arbery’s personal mental health records be sealed but also ordered defense attorneys to provide further explanation as to why the records are relevant to the state murder case against the three men facing a fall trial in the slaying of the 25-year-old Black man.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley wants more time before making a final decision on whether evidence of Arbery’s past encounters with law enforcement and history of mental health evaluations can be shown to a jury at trial in October. He said he wants to know what specific evidence the defense wants to show a jury and why it is relevant and he wants those answers on paper in the next 20 days.

“Someone’s going to need to walk me through this evidence and tell me how it gets in a case like this, particularly given the various issues that layer over it. Just walk me through it. I want it on paper. And I want to know what evidence we’re claiming to get in to show this, what you claim to be relevant evidence,” the judge said of what he’s looking for from the defense.

Thursday was the second day of the two-day hearing in Brunswick, with Walmsley hearing legal motions in the case of Gregory McMichael, his son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, all three of whom are charged with malice murder and other counts in Arbery’s death.

Judge orders Ahmaud Arbery’s mental health records be sealed -- for now
Judge orders Ahmaud Arbery’s mental health records be sealed -- for now

Cellphone video recorded by Bryan shows the McMichaels chasing Arbery through the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick in their pickup truck and then Travis McMichael getting out of the truck with a shotgun and shooting Arbery three times.

Defense attorneys are pushing for permission to show the trial jury evidence involving Arbery’s mental health. They argue mental illness could have played a role in the Feb. 23, 2020, slaying. Over the last couple of days, defense attorneys brought up as many as eight witnesses to testify to Arbery’s past encounters with law enforcement.

“It’s not about the credibility of Ahmaud Arbery. And it is OK to recognize and celebrate who Ahmaud Arbery was in 2012 when he graduated high school, but it is reckless to disregard the mental health illness that plagued him for eight years leading up to this moment on February 23, 2020,” said Jason Sheffield, defense attorney for Travis McMichael.

Prosecutors object, saying it’s a ploy by defense lawyers to blame Arbery for his own death.

“They said well he’s got a diagnosis and it makes him angry and it makes him emotional and therefore he must have been angry and emotional and therefore this is how he reacted that day -- all of which is speculation and all of it is propensity evidence which is not allowed,” said Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski.

Both the state and defense agreed records show two nurses, specifically a registered nurse and nurse practitioner at Gateway Behavioral Center, diagnosed Arbery. But the state took issue with the quality of that diagnosis. One nurse testified she took online training courses before conducting mental health evaluations at the behavioral center.

The judge spent a large part of Thursday morning listening to arguments over jail calls made by the McMichaels and Bryan. Frank Hogue, one of the attorneys representing Greg McMichael, argued the calls should be altogether excluded from evidence at trial, especially calls to his wife. State prosecutor Larissa Oliveirre pointed out that a message people who are incarcerated hear before making a call warns the calls are recorded and can be used as evidence at trial. The judge didn’t rule on the issue in court.

Also discussed Thursday were statements made by Bryan that his defense attorney wants to be excluded from the record.

After the hearing ended Thursday, Arbery’s family came out. His parents repeated as they have before -- despite their son’s past -- he was doing nothing wrong on the day he was chased and fatally shot. Wanda Cooper-Jones, his mother, said she still feels like the case is “moving closer to justice.”

“I just want this to be all over so Ahmaud can continue to rest in peace,” Cooper-Jones said.

All three defendants have been jailed without bond since their arrests on state murder charges. They initially remained free for more than two months after Arbery was killed but were swiftly charged after the video became public and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police. The judge has scheduled jury selection in their trial to begin Oct. 18, although he said he could set another hearing before then to settle any other issues.

The Justice Department on April 28 added hate crime charges against the McMichaels and Bryan, all of whom pleaded not guilty to the federal counts before a U.S. magistrate judge Tuesday.

On Monday, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a bill repealing the state’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law -- a law that was cited by Waycross prosecutor George Barnhill in a letter explaining why the three defendants did not initially face arrest.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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