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‘Strangers’ with ‘Intent to Kill’: Race Nearly Absent from Prosecution’s Opening Statement on Alleged Murder of Ahmaud Arbery

Ahmaud Arbery's accused killers Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, William Bryan

Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan are seen in jail booking photos.

Months after 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery’s death, the nation found out a shocking truth for the first time: a video showed white men in the Deep South waiting for and following the young Black man in the street before one of them opened fire with a shotgun. The lead prosecutor of Arbery’s accused murderers framed the case on Friday as one about three men who assumed the worst. References to race were few and far between in the opening statement, mostly made through the the prosecutor quoting the defendants.

“Why are we here?” asked Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski rhetorically in her opening remarks, articulating the answer as “assumptions and driveway decisions.”

“All three of these defendants did everything they did because of assumptions. They made decisions in their driveways based on those assumptions that took a young man’s life,” Dunikoski told the jurors.

According to the police report, gunman Travis McMichael, 35, and his father Gregory McMichael, 65, told authorities that they chased Arbery, believing him to be responsible for recent suspected break-ins. They were armed with a shotgun and a .357 magnum. According to an investigator’s testimony, Gregory McMichael called the suspicion a “gut feeling.” The victim’s family, however, said Arbery was an avid runner. The prosecutor said that the jury would see the truth of this in Arbery’s shoes, which had worn out the tread. The owner of a related property under construction said it never experienced robberies.

William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, who recorded the fatal confrontation from another vehicle, was charged with murder along with the McMichaels. Gregory McMichael described him as an active participant in the chase, authorities say.

“A Black Man Running Down the Street”

The lead prosecutor told the jury described the property “where the homicide took place”—220 Satilla Dr. in Brunswick, Ga., known as Satilla Shores—as “an unopened, unsecured construction site.”

“It’s under construction, and it’s wide open,” Dunikoski said. “There’s no front door, back door—completely and utterly wide open.”

That laissez faire approach changed after Satilla Shores property owner Larry English reported having belongings stolen from his boat, which was kept on the dock. English installed surveillance footage on the construction site, which did not experience any theft. On Jan. 1, 2020, Travis McMichael’s gun was stolen from an unlocked car in an unsolved crime, with no evidence tying Arbery to it.

On Feb. 11, 2020, the McMichaels spoke to an officer who was wearing a body-worn camera about the rash of stolen property, but the prosecutor noted that none of the men mentioned the words “burglary” and “attempted burglary.”

Some 12 days later on the date of the alleged murder—Feb. 23, 2020—a witness dialed 911 to report Arbery in the English home, and asked if the young man had done anything wrong, the caller responded that he was “running down the street.” Greg McMichael made a similar remark in a 911 call on that date.

“I’m out here in Satilla Shores, and there’s a Black man running down the street,” the prosecution quoted him as saying.

Scoffing at that line, Dunikoski said:”That’s the emergency.”

Greg McMichael also said he told police: “Stop, or I’ll blow your fucking head off.”

Using other statements by defendants against them, Dunikoski quoted Bryan telling police that Arbery was “trapped like a rat.”

The prosecutor also undermined claims that Arbery reached for the weapon that killed him by quoting Travis McMichael telling authorities: “I want to say he did [grab the shotgun], but I honestly can’t remember.”

Prosecutors said three shots were fired. One missed, and two entered Arbery’s wrist and torso, exiting his back.

“There Appears to Be Intentional Discrimination”

On Thursday, presiding Judge Timothy Walmsley empaneled a 12-member jury despite finding that “there appears to be intentional discrimination” in the defense’s use of peremptory strikes. Only one of the remaining jurors is Black, and the other 11 are white. Judge Walker found that precedent tied his hands from any intervention.

“One of the challenges that I think counsel recognize in this case is the racial overtones in the case,” Walmsley noted on Thursday.

“So we start getting into this question about race and to begin, quite a few African American jurors were excused through peremptory strikes exercised by the defense,” the judge continued later, adding that the “prima facie” case of discrimination does not mean “the court has the authority” to take action under the Supreme Court’s precedent Batson v. Kentucky.

That case established that jurors cannot be excused solely on the basis of race and mandated that a valid cause must be stated, but the holding has been interpreted as constraining judges from questioning the stated rationales.

Before trial began, Judge Walmsley issued a pair of rulings favorable to the state, barring the defense from alluding to Arbery’s probation record before the jury but allowing the prosecution to introduce Travis McMichael’s vanity plate on the front of his truck into evidence. The plate displayed Georgia’s old state flag with a Confederate emblem on it. That piece of evidence, however, was not previewed in the state’s opening.

Arbery’s killing animated racial justice activists across the country, as another case where white individuals indisputably killed a Black man in an incident caught on tape. Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery in a fatal confrontation on Feb. 23, 2020, but the question before jurors is whether the shooting constitutes murder. The family’s lawyer Ben Crump described the footage as one about a “modern-day lynching.”

Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper Jones started crying when the state played video of her son being killed.

“I don’t want to see that,” Arbery’s father was heard saying, as he walked out of the courtroom.

Months after the incident, video surfaced and received national attention. The McMichaels and Bryan’s arrest soon followed, and a grand jury indicted them in state court with one count of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment, and one count of engaging in a criminal attempt to commit a felony. Federal prosecutors later hit the trio with charges of civil rights, kidnapping and use of a firearm in a crime of violence.

Twice during the state’s roughly two-hour opening, the defense objected on the grounds that the prosecutor made arguments more appropriate for summations. After the state’s opening had concluded, the defense complained about the prosecutor’s brief reference to a time lapse between Arbery’s death and the arrests in this case. Judge Walmsley shot down that concern, stating that openings provided each party’s view of what the evidence will show. Trial is set to last two to three weeks.

Judge Walmsley adjourned the trial for a lunch recess, after which defense openings will follow.

Alberto Luperon, Brian Buckmire and Cathy Russon contributed to this report.

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."