Three Georgia men pleaded not guilty to federal hate crimes charges Tuesday in the February 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was pursued and gunned down as he jogged through a Brunswick neighborhood, reports CBS station WTOC. Travis McMichael, 35, his father Gregory McMichael, 65, and 51-year-old William “Roddie” Bryan, who are White, were already facing state counts when they were indicted on hate crime charges last week by a federal grand jury in the Southern District of Georgia.
The three were charged with murder in the state case months after Arbery was killed. Bryan’s disturbing cell phone video of the shooting spurred a national outcry.
In the federal case, each were charged with one count of interference with rights and one count of attempted kidnapping. Travis and Gregory McMichael were charged with one count of using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence. Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Arbery, was also charged with discharging a firearm.
The federal indictment alleges the men used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race. It alleges Travis and Gregory Michael armed themselves and chased Arbery in a truck while yelling at him and threatening him with firearms, and it says Bryan joined the chase. All three cut off Arbery’s route in their vehicles, the indictment alleges.
In addition to the hate crime charges, the indictment alleges all three defendants attempted to unlawfully seize and confine Arbery in an attempt to restrict his free movement and detain him against his will.
Speaking at a court hearing in the state case last year, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent said Bryan told investigators Travis McMichaelas Arbery lay dying.
Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s family, told “48 Hours” last year Arbery would still be alive “but for the complexion of his skin.”
“He was killed because of hate,” Merrit told CBS News’ Omar Villafranca. “This was a lynching.”
But lawyers for the three defendants have insisted the case is about self-defense, not race, saying Arbery attacked Travis McMichael. Attorneys for the McMichaels have argued the father and son believed Arbery was the burglary suspect who had been stealing items from the neighborhood in the months prior to the shooting, leaving the community “on edge.” In court filings, defense attorneys say the McMichaels had a right to pursue Arbery under Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law, which allowed citizens to detain people who had committed felonies. Gov. Brian Kemp repealed the law this week.
A lawyer for Travis McMichael has denied he used the racial slur. But prosecutors hope to introduce evidence showing that Travis McMichael and Bryan used racist terms in text messages, and that Travis and Gregory McMichael viewed racist Facebook posts. Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley, who is presiding over the state case, is set to take up the prosecution’s motion to introduce the texts and posts at the October trial during a pre-trial hearing Wednesday and Thursday. Walmsley will also hear the defense’s argument to introduce evidence of Arbery’s past run-ins with law enforcement, alleging Arbery had previously used running or jogging as a “cover” to steal.
Prosecutors say they do not contest that Arbery went inside a home under construction in the McMichaels’ neighborhood four times, including on the day of the fatal pursuit, but say there is no evidence Arbery stole anything. Prosecutors also say that there’s no evidence the McMichaels had knowledge of his prior arrest for shoplifting before they began to pursue Arbery, “who they labeled, without any basis, as criminal in their minds.”
“The only purpose for placing the “other acts” of Mr. Arbery before jury is to is to smear the character of Mr. Arbery and suggest that his murder was deserved,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
The defense also wants to introduce evidence that Arbery had not been taking his medication for his schizoaffective disorder, a mental condition they say can be linked to violence.
The defendants do not face hate crime charges in the state case. At the time of Arbery’s killing, Georgia was one of a handful of states with no hate crime laws, which generally allow for harsher sentencing for perpetrators of crimes ruled by a court to be bias-motivated. Arbery’s death galvanized advocates and led to the passage of a hate crime bill in the state last year, but the new law is not retroactive and cannot be applied to this case.