The Ahmaud Arbery Murder Trial, Explained
Here’s what you need to know about the trial of the Arbery murder defendants.
Nov. 22, 2021, 8:04 a.m. ET
Three white Georgia men stand accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man after they suspected him of committing a series of break-ins in their neighborhood outside of the coastal city of Brunswick in South Georgia in February 2020.
The trial of Gregory McMichael, 65; his 35-year-old son, Travis McMichael; and their neighbor William Bryan, 52, began in early November, and lawyers are expected to make their closing statements on Monday. All three men face possible life sentences.
The slaying of Mr. Arbery was captured on video that was widely viewed by the public, helping to make it among the most high-profile cases with civil rights overtones in the United States. The trial has played out at the same time as the case in Kenosha, Wis., involving Kyle Rittenhouse, who last week was found not guilty of homicide and other charges after fatally shooting two men and wounding another amid protests and rioting.
Who was Ahmaud Arbery?
Mr. Arbery was a former high school football standout who was living with his mother outside the small city of Brunswick. He had spent a little time in college but seemed to be in a period of drift in his 20s, testing out various careers and working on his rapping skills. He also suffered from a mental illness that caused him to have auditory hallucinations.
Friends and family said he liked to stay in shape. He was an avid jogger who was often seen running in and around his neighborhood.
The defense has argued that the accused men — who spotted Mr. Arbery running through their community, pursued him in two trucks and then cornered him — were making a lawful citizen’s arrest. They have argued that Travis McMichael shot Mr. Arbery because Mr. Arbery attacked him.
The state has argued that the defendants chased Mr. Arbery based on flimsy assumptions about his presence in their suburban neighborhood of Satilla Shores. Travis McMichael testified last week that he shot Mr. Arbery after Mr. Arbery grabbed his gun; a prosecutor pointed out that in Mr. McMichael’s initial statement to the police he had said he could not remember if that had happened.
Before the trial began, prosecutors signaled that they intended to tell the jury that the defendants’ decisions were based on racial animus; but the jury ultimately heard no talk of race.
Crime in the neighborhood
The defendants and other neighbors have described Satilla Shores as a community on edge after a series of burglaries and property crime. Gregory McMichael said that when he saw Mr. Arbery running through the neighborhood, he thought he looked like a man suspected in several break-ins in the area.
Mr. Arbery had been spotted on security camera footage several times at a house under construction. No evidence was produced that he had ever taken any property from the site.
One law dismantled, another enacted
Mr. Arbery’s death led lawmakers in Atlanta to change the state law in two significant ways. First, they gutted a Civil War-era citizen’s arrest statute that allowed citizens to arrest one another under certain circumstances and when the police were not present. Second, lawmakers passed a hate crimes law, allowing for extra penalties for people who commit crimes against others based on their race, gender, sexual orientation or other identities. Law enforcement officials are required to file reports of these kinds of crimes so the state can track them.
The defendants have claimed they are not guilty based in part on the former citizen’s arrest law. They were not charged under the new hate crimes law, but all three were indicted under the federal hate crimes statute earlier this year. Their trial in that case is set for February.