BRUNSWICK, Ga. – Sentenced to life in prison for murder, the three white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery will soon stand trial on federal hate crimes charges in which jurors will have to decide whether the slaying of the running Black man was motivated by racism.
The indictment filed last year charged father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan with violating Arbery’s civil rights when they pursued the running man in pickup trucks and cut off his escape from their neighborhood. Bryan recorded cellphone video of the chase’s deadly end when Travis McMichael blasted Arbery at close range with a shotgun.
Evidence of racism that state prosecutors chose not to present at the state murder trial is expected to be front and center in the federal hate crimes trial, but an attorney not affiliated with the case, Gene Nichols, told News4JAX that hate crimes are not easy to prosecute.
“Not only do you have to prove the act, but you also have to prove that it was motivated by race. The government’s going to have to establish what was in their hearts. And that’s a little bit more difficult to prove.”
The federal judge has scheduled jury selection to begin in the three men’s second trial in U.S. District Court a month from now, on Feb. 7. More differences to expect during the federal trial, the accused men will have new attorneys-- public defenders instead of privately hired lawyers. And Nichols said the men also likely will not take the stand in the federal trial either.
“The big question is going to become, what evidence does the federal government have regarding that they have depraved, racist hearts? Evidence could come in the form of anybody that the McMichaels or Bryan have had conversations with or who has seen them in bad situations-- people who have heard them say things that they obviously should not be saying,”
The Feb. 23, 2020, killing just outside the port city of Brunswick became part of a greater national reckoning on racial injustice when the video leaked online two months later. Though an investigator testified at a pretrial court hearing that Bryan said he heard Travis McMichael utter a racist slur as Arbery lay dying in the street, state prosecutors never presented that information to the jury during the murder case.
That evidence should be key in the federal trial, where the McMichaels and Bryan are charged with targeting Arbery because he was Black.
At the state sentencing hearing Friday, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley gave both McMichaels life in prison with no chance of parole. The judge sentenced Bryan to life with a possibility for parole once he’s served 30 years.
Nichols said if the men are convicted in the hate crimes trial, the judge will have to decide on running their sentences consecutively.
He said the best thing from McMichael’s standpoint is to either be found not guilty in the federal case or try to win an appeal in the state court case – which attorneys do plan to file in less than 30 days.
Despite those severe state penalties, Arbery’s family said the hate crimes case remains important.
“They killed him because he was a Black man,” Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, told reporters outside the Glynn County courthouse Friday.
Regardless, issues of race loomed large in the murder trial over Arbery’s death. The McMichaels and Bryan weren’t charged with crimes in the Black man’s killing until the shooting video became public two months later.
Defense attorneys during the trial contended the men pursued Arbery because they reasonably believed he had been committing burglaries in the neighborhood. Travis McMichael took the witness stand to testify that he opened fire in self-defense after Arbery ran at him and tried to grab his shotgun.
At the time of his death, Arbery had enrolled at a technical college and was preparing to study to become an electrician like his uncles.