Explosive testimony on tap as witnesses queued up to testify in Ahmaud Arbery case

By: - November 8, 2021 12:14 pm

Satilla Shores is the suburban Glynn County neighborhood in Georgia where the three white men on trial for murdering Ahmaud Arbery lived and where the fatal confrontation took place on Feb. 23, 2020. Stanley Dunlap/Georgia Recorder

The fourth week of the trial of three white men accused of murdering 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery is set to resume this week with testimony from a lengthy witness list that includes police officers, Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI)  investigators, neighbors of the defendants and others set to testify.

Attorneys still aim to finish presenting their cases in mid-November despite a longer than expected jury selection process that’s drawing criticism for producing only one Black juror in a case where race has become a central issue. The courthouse is in the predominantly Black city of Brunswick and the jury pool came from the city of 18,000 and surrounding Glynn County of about 70,000.

An extended version of the chilling video recording of Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan chasing in pickup trucks an unarmed Arbery as the Black man jogged through a suburban Brunswick subdivision played during the prosecutor’s opening statement Friday and will continue to be a lynchpin in a case that’s drawn national attention.

The state’s witness list includes GBI detectives and the Glynn County police officers who interacted with the McMichaels, Bryan and neighbors leading up to and after the shooting that occurred inside the Satilla Shores subdivision on Feb. 23, 2020.

Testimony is set to resume at 9 a.m. Monday with the return of the first witness, Glynn County police officer William Duggan who responded in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

Friday, Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski described the fear Arbery must have felt while he was pursued, saying that the actions and statements from the defendants discredit claims that they were making a lawful citizen’s arrest of a suspected burglar or that Arbery’s killing was simply self-defense.

Dunikoski said it’s unclear the exact routes Arbery ran while trying to escape the McMichaels and Bryan, but said part of the harrowing experience included Bryan running Arbery into a ditch and Greg McMichael threatening to kill Arbery before being confronted with a shotgun by Travis McMichael.

Arbery’s father Marcus Arbery, Sr. became too emotional Friday to watch his son’s final moments and left the courtroom before the video began to play. Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, sobbed as it played on a screen in the courtroom.

“At some point Greg McMichael told police he told Arbery to stop or ‘I’’ll blow his f***in head off,’” Dunikoski said.

“It’s a much bigger picture,” she said. “It’s assumptions and driveway decisions. Mr. Arbery tried to run away from them for five minutes.”

Defense attorneys are expected to rely on the testimony of residents of a neighborhood located outside the Brunswick limits to describe their concerns about reported property crimes and other suspicious activity in the months prior to Arbery’s killing.

The defense said Friday they would prove the defendants acted appropriately, although the chase ended tragically when a cornered Arbery grabbed the shotgun that Travis McMichael had pointed at him.

Over the next week, the trial is also set to focus tightly on legal definitions of Georgia’s old citizen’s arrest statute, which has since been repealed by state lawmakers, and what’s considered appropriate self-defense.

Travis McMichael’s attorney Bob Rubin said the fact the McMichaels called 911 before Arbery’s death indicates they were trying to resolve the situation without harming Arbery.

“It is tragic that Ahmaud Arbery lost his life but at that point Travis McMichael was acting in self-defense,” Rubin said Friday.

When the cell footage filmed by Bryan leaked online two months after Arbery’s killing, it spurred the appointment of outside prosecutors and the GBI soon arrested the McMichaels on charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

Two weeks later, Bryan was also charged with murdering Arbery. Among the most important testimony will be in a deposition from Larry English about how his Satilla Shores home, which was under construction, became a focal point in the case.

Surveillance video footage over the course of months showed Arbery and other people coming onto the property, leading to calls to police and alarming neighbors like the McMichaels and Bryan.

Twelve days before Arbery was shot to death, Travis McMichael flashed his headlights when he noticed Arbery on English’s property. Later, Travis McMichael went home before he and his father carried their firearms back to a scene where Arbery fell after three shotgun blasts, as neighbors and several Glynn police officers had arrived, Dunikoski said.

One of the bodycam videos played on Friday is footage of Glynn officer Robert Rash relaying to McMichaels his conversation with English.

“I’m talking to Mr. English right now and he sent me some videos and Mr. English says that this (Arbery) guy has never stolen or taken anything from this property,” Rash said.

Dunikoski pointed out that the McMichaels were aware before the shooting that Arbey wasn’t suspected of burglary at the construction site.

“At no time on this video do you hear the words burglary or attempted burglary,” Dunikoski said.

Rubin, however, countered the statements from English and other neighbors will testify that the neighborhood was on edge because of an increase in property crime and that Travis McMichael saw himself as someone willing to risk his safety to detain Arbery.

Travis McMichael relied on previous experience as a boarding officer with the U.S. Coast Guard that prepared him for strenuous circumstances. Rubin said the law afforded his client the right to chase Arbery after seeing him running  that day.

“We’re not contending a crime was committed in their presence,” Rubin said. “There was probable cause to believe a felony was committed and this man was attempting to flee.”

Leading up to the trial, Bryan’s attorney Kevin Gough has downplayed the role Bryan played in the chase while Greg McMichael’s attorney, Frank Hogue, Friday hinted at a strategy of blaming Arbery for moving toward a shotgun-wielding Travis McMichael that resulted in his death.

“(Greg) is in abject fear that he is about to witness his only son possibly be shot and killed in front of his very eyes,” Hogue said during opening testimony.

Travis McMichael’s attorneys were successful in getting jurors seated who said during the selection process they didn’t find Confederate imagery to be racist, leading them to striking the 11 Black prospective jurors as the process winded down.

The trial moved forward with the nearly all white jury despite Chatham County Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley calling out defense attorneys for intentionally discriminating while picking the panel.

It was a significant victory as attorneys and prosecutors argued over whether Confederate imagery on Travis McMichael’s pickup truck tag should be presented during the trial.

Still, throughout the trial the defense teams will set out to defend their clients against accusations that Arbery being Black contributed to the deadly outcome.

Prosecutors will present a GBI investigator to describe Bryan telling authorities that Travis McMichael uttered a racial slur several times before shooting Arbery.

Meanwhile, lawyers representing Travis McMichael may also call Zachary Langford and Ashely Landford, who testified at a bond hearing about Travis McMichaels expressing remorse for killing Arbery and claiming they hadn’t seen him behave in a racist manner.

This story was originally published by the Georgia Recorder, an affiliate of the nonprofit States Newsroom, which includes the Florida Phoenix.

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap is a reporter at the Georgia Recorder, part of the nonprofit States Newsroom that includes the Florida Phoenix. Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. He is a graduate of the University of Memphis.

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