White men who chased and shot Ahmaud Arbery acted on 'assumptions,' prosecutor tells Georgia murder trial

White men in pickup trucks chased Ahmaud Arbery for five minutes, and one threatened to shoot him, as they cut off his escape from a Georgia subdivision and ultimately killed the 25-year-old Black man with a shotgun, a prosecutor told a trial jury Friday.

Defence struck 8 potential Black jurors but has argued it was for reasons other than race

People gather in front of a mural of Ahmaud Arbery painted on the side of the Brunswick African American Cultural Center on Thursday in Brunswick, Ga. (Octavio Jones/The Associated Press)

White men in pickup trucks chased Ahmaud Arbery for five minutes, and one threatened to shoot him, as they cut off his escape from a Georgia subdivision and ultimately killed the 25-year-old Black man with a shotgun, a prosecutor told a trial jury Friday.

In her opening statement, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said the short cellphone video that stirred national outrage over the slaying gave only a glimpse of the attack on Arbery, who gave his pursuers no reason to suspect him of any wrongdoing.

"They assumed that he must have committed some crime that day," Dunikoski said. "He tried to run around their truck and get way from these strangers, total strangers, who had already told him that they would kill him. And then they killed him."

Arbery's killing on Feb. 23, 2020, in Lynn County, Ga., was largely ignored until the video leaked and deepened a national reckoning over racial injustice.

Greg McMichael and his adult son, Travis McMichael, armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck as he ran through their neighbourhood just outside the port city of Brunswick. A neighbour, William (Roddie) Bryan, joined the chase and recorded graphic video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times.

The chase started on a Sunday afternoon when a neighbour called a non-emergency police number after seeing Arbery wandering inside a home under construction, where security cameras had recorded him before.

Travis McMichael attends the jury selection at the Gwynn County Superior Court in Brunswick, Ga., on Oct. 27. McMichael is accused of firing the fatal shots in the killing of Arbery. (Octavio Jones/The Associated Press)

Greg McMichael saw Arbery run past his home and ran inside to alert his son. They grabbed guns, jumped in their truck and gave chase, Dunikoski said. Bryan joined them after seeing Arbery run past the McMichaels' truck outside his home.

She said Greg McMichael later told police that at one point during the chase he shouted at Arbery, "Stop or I'll blow your f--king head off!"

When a police officer who responded to the shooting asked Greg McMichael if Arbery had broken into a house, he told the officer: "That's just it. I don't know.... I don't know, he might have gone in somebody's house," according to Dunikoski.

"All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions — not on facts, not on evidence," Dunikoski said. "And they made decisions in their driveways based on those assumptions that took a young man's life."

Travis McMichael's defence attorney, Robert Rubin, described Arbery to the jury as "an intruder" and a "scary mystery" to residents of a neighbourhood already on edge from thefts and property crimes. Arbery had been recorded by security cameras four times inside a home under construction between October 2019 and February 2020 when he was killed.

"No one knows him," Rubin said in his opening statement. "He's not jogging in the neighbourhood. No one's ever seen him. The only time we see Ahmaud Arbery in the neighbourhood is at night on these cameras."

Charges only laid after video leaked

Georgia's response to the killing has become part of a broader effort to address racial injustice in the criminal legal system after a string of fatal encounters between police and Black people such as George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley swore in the disproportionately white jury Friday before proceedings began. All three defendants are standing trial together, charged with murder and other felonies.

Arbery had been dead for more than two months before the three men were charged and jailed last year. Greg McMichael, a retired investigator for the local district attorney, told police the men were trying to stop Arbery because they suspected he was a burglar.

Greg McMichael said his son killed Arbery in self-defence after Arbery attacked him with his fists and tried to take Travis McMichael's gun.

Prosecutors say Arbery was merely out jogging.

Dunikoski described Arbery as an "avid runner" and told the jury it was not unusual for him to go running in the Satilla Shores subdivision, which was less than 3.2 kilometres from his own home.

"You're going to be able to see his Nike shoes," she told jurors, "where he had basically no tread left on them whatsoever."

When he was killed, Arbery had no weapon and was carrying no wallet or keys, Dunikoski said.

Arbery "couldn't even have called for help if he wanted to because he had no cellphone on him," she said.

When Bryan's video of the killing leaked online in May 2020, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police. GBI agents arrested the McMichaels the next day, and charged Bryan two weeks later.

Jury controversy

The judge and attorneys took two-and-a-half weeks to select a jury. Nearly 200 people summoned to jury duty were questioned extensively about what they knew about the case, how many times they had seen the video and if they had any personal connection to Arbery or the defendants.

Controversy erupted on Wednesday, the final day of jury selection, when prosecutors objected to a final jury consisting of 11 whites and one Black juror. They argued that defence attorneys had cut eight potential jurors from the final panel because they are Black, which the U.S. Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional.

The judge agreed that there appeared to be "intentional discrimination," but said Georgia law limited his authority to intervene because defence attorneys stated non-racial reasons for excluding Black panellists from the jury.

One juror, a white woman, was dismissed Thursday for medical reasons. Fifteen total panellists will hear the trial — 12 jurors plus three alternates. The judge has not given the races of the alternate jurors, and they were not asked to state their race in open court.

Court officials have said the trial could last two weeks or more.

If the defendants are acquitted, their legal troubles won't be over. They have also been indicted on federal hate crime charges. A U.S. District Court judge has scheduled that trial to begin Feb. 7.

LISTEN | What three trials unfolding now could reveal about racism in the American legal system:

Racism and political violence are front and centre in three U.S. courtrooms this week. In Charlottesville, Va., the federal civil case against some of the hate groups that organized the 2017 Unite The Right Rally began. In Madison, Wis., pre-trial proceedings have begun in the criminal trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two Black Lives Matter protesters and wounded a third in Kenosha, Wis., last year. And in Brunswick, Ga., jury selection has begun in the criminal trial of three white men who chased down and killed an unarmed Black man named Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020. The circumstances in each case are different, but Nicole Lewis, senior editor of the Jurisprudence section at Slate, says they all tell the story of the U.S. justice system’s inability to genuinely deal with racism. 9:46