Opening statements begin Friday in murder trial

Nov. 5—Travis McMichael killed Ahmaud Arbery, shooting him three times with buckshot fired from a 12-gauge shotgun at close range on Feb. 23, 2020.

This much is not in dispute. The shooting is on video.

The question is: Was the killing self-defense or was it murder?

That answer now rests with a jury of 12 Glynn County residents, who will begin hearing opening statements in the murder trial of the three defendants today in Superior Court at the Glynn County Courthouse.

Travis McMichael, 35, his father, Gregory McMichael, 65, and the 52-year-old William "Roddie" Bryan are charged with murder, aggravated assault and other charges.

The deadly confrontation that Sunday afternoon culminated in a pursuit of several minutes, during which Arbery ran through the streets of the Satilla Shores with the two McMichaels chasing him in a pickup truck. Neighbor Bryan joined the chase in another pickup.

Bryan used his cellphone to record the fatal ending, when McMichael shot the unarmed Arbery as the two struggled for possession of McMichael's shotgun on a public street. Arbery stumbled to the pavement and died.

The jury was empaneled late Wednesday evening, emerging from intense questioning of nearly 200 Glynn County residents during a grueling jury selection process that began Oct. 18. The 12-member jury is made up of 11 Whites and one Black.

The racial makeup of the jury is an issue to those claiming the shooting was racially motivated. Arbery was Black. All three defendants are White.

The pool of 48 qualified jurors from which the jury was assembled included 12 blacks — 25 percent of the pool. When the process was completed late Wednesday, the prosecution immediately filed a motion claiming the defense struck at least eight of the 12 Black potential jurors based solely on race. Black people make up about 27 percent of Glynn County's 85,000 residents.

Eastern Judicial Circuit Judge Timothy Walmsely agreed that race likely motivated the defense's decision to strike Blacks from the jury. Regardless of the motives, the defense could claim nonracial reasons for each strike, Walmsley said.

Walmsley instructed the jurors to avoid reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Brunswick News and to avoid discussing the case among themselves.

Thursday in court was spent mostly on addressing final motions before the actual trial begins.

Wamsley denied a defense motion to exclude the body camera footage of the Glynn County police officers who arrived on the scene in the aftermath of the shooting, some of which captures Arbery's last dying breaths.

The judge granted a motion from the prosecution to exclude the defense's planned testimony from a former federal law enforcement officer regarding use of force protocol. Senior assistant district attorney Linda Dunikoski of the Cobb County DA's office argued the law enforcement expert's opinion on use of force does not apply because none of the defendants were certified in law enforcement at the time.

The judge also granted a motion to exclude the defense's use of Arbery's toxicology report from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Crime Lab in Pooler.

The judge took under advisement the prosecution's motion to exclude the defense's plan to present Arbery's probation status at the time of his death. Walmslet also took under advisement requests from the defense to exclude the prosecution from presenting the vanity plate on the pickup truck in which the McMichaels pursued Arbery. The vanity plate depicts the old Georgia State flag that incorporates the Confederate battle flag, which many consider racist.

Walmsley said he will issue an order on both prior to opening statements in the trial.

The high profile case has placed this small coastal Georgia community in the national spotlight, with major media organizations from around the country covering the trial gavel to gavel. Likewise, most of the people conducting this trial are from outside of Glynn County.

Walmsley is a Superior Court judge in Savannah who was assigned the case after local judges cited conflict of interest. The Cobb County DA is prosecuting the case, led by Dunikoski with assistant attorneys Larissa Ollivierre and Paul Camarillo.

Travis McMichael is represented by attorneys Jason Sheffield and Robert Rubin of Decatur. Gregory McMichael is represented by Macon attorneys Franklin and Laura Hogue, a husband and wife team. Only Bryan's attorney, Kevin Gough, is local.

The Cobb County DA's office received the case from Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr in May 2020 shortly after the arrests of the defendants.

The Cobb DA is the fourth prosecutor to be involved in the case. Then-Brunswick DA Jackie Johnson recused herself from the case the day of the shooting because the elder McMichael had retired the year before from a long career as an investigator with her office. (Gregory McMichael was not a certified law enforcement officer the last several years he worked for the DA.)

The case first went to Waycross DA George Barnhill, who later stepped down after protests from Arbery's family because Barnhill's son was an attorney with the Brunswick DA. The case then went to Hinesville DA Tom Durden before being transferred to the Cobb DA.

In September, Johnson was indicted on malfeasance charges alleging she mishandled the case. The indictment accuses her of telling county police on the scene via cell phone not to arrest the McMichaels and later manipulating Barnhill's subsequent appointment as prosecutor.

New Brunswick DA Keith Higgins defeated Johnson in a hotly-contested election last November that centered on the Arbery case.

More than two months elapsed between the shooting and the arrest of the three defendants. Bryan's video went viral online in early May 2020, sparking widespread outrage and cries of racial injustice. Two days later, GBI agents arrested the McMichaels at their residence on Satilla Drive.

GBI agents arrested Bryan on May 21.

A former standout linebacker for the Brunswick High Pirates, Arbery was known to friends and family as an avid jogger. In May 2020, a Satilla Shore resident told The News she had seen Arbery jogging through the neighborhood on prior occasions.

Arbery lived about 2 miles away at his mother's residence in the Fancy Bluff neighborhood.

On the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020, Arbery entered a house under construction at 220 Satilla Shores that had open garage bay doors. Surveillance video at the structure showed Arbery entered the structure previously on Feb. 11 and left without incident, said Larry English, the out-of-town property owner. He called police, but noted nothing was taken.

Arbery stepped back out of the house on Feb. 23, having committed no crime. A resident across the street called 911 at 1:09 p.m.

"I'm out here at Satilla Shores," the caller said. "There's a Black male running down the street."

Responded the dispatcher: "I just need to know what he was doing wrong."

Gregory McMichael was in his front yard when Arbery ran past their residence a few houses away on Satilla Drive. McMichael told county police he ran inside the house and told his son to get a gun. Gregory McMichael grabbed a .357 magnum handgun; Travis McMichael grabbed a Remington 870 12-gauge shotgun.

They jumped in a pickup truck and pursued Arbery.

Bryan was outside his residence on Burford Road when he saw Arbery run by with the McMichaels in pursuit. He jumped in a 2018 Silverado and joined the chase.

According to GBI investigator Richard Dial, Arbery was running down Burford Road just as Bryan pulled out of his driveway and blocked Arbery's path with the truck, forcing him into a roadside drainage ditch. Dial said Bryan used his truck to block Arbery's path several more times.

Ultimately, Arbery was caught between the two pickup trucks.

Bryan followed and recorded with his cell phone as Arbery ran toward the McMichaels' pickup truck, which was stopped in the roadway near Holmes Road and Satilla Drive.

Travis McMichael stood outside the truck's driver's side door, holding the shotgun; Gregory McMichael was in the truck bed, brandishing the .357.

Dial said Travis McMichael pointed the gun at Arbery as he ran toward them.

The video shows Arbery running toward the truck, then veering around the passenger side of the truck. From the truck bed, Gregory McMichael called 911 at 1:15 p.m.

"Stop!" he can be heard saying. "Watch that. Stop, damn it! Stop!"

The video next shows Arbery closing in on Travis McMichael at the front of the truck.

Arbery grabbed at the gun barrel and threw a punch at Travis McMichael, who fired three times, hitting Arbery twice in the chest and once in the wrist. Arbery stumbled onto the pavement, the video shows. Travis McMichael stepped forward out of the camera with a look of intensity on his face.

According to Dial, Bryan told GBI agents that Travis McMichael uttered the "F" word followed by the "N" word after the shooting.

The defense will argue that Travis McMichael fired in self-defense while they were attempting a citizen's arrest.

The prosecution contends Arbery was murdered while out for a jog.

Dunikoski told potential jurors during the jury selection process that the trial might go through Nov. 19. The list of witnesses is long, including numerous Glynn County police officers and GBI agents, including Dial.

Dial spent six hours on the witness stand during a probable cause hearing at the Glynn County Courthouse in June 2020.

At one point, defense attorney Sheffield asked Dial if he thought Travis McMichael shot in self-defense.

"I don't believe it was self-defense on Travis McMichael's part," Dial said at the time. "I do believe it was self-defense on Mr. Arbery's part. I believe he was in a position where he meant to try to get away. When he could not escape, he chose to fight."

Attorney Rubin told The News earlier this year that the video is the key to their defense.

"We are convinced of our client's innocence and we want to put this before a jury," he told The News in February. "We're thankful that there's a video."

The three defendants, who have remained in the Glynn County Detention Center since their arrest, face additional criminal charges in U.S. District Court. Jury selection will begin Feb. 7, 2022.

All three men face federal charges of interfering with Arbery's rights and attempted kidnapping. Additionally, the two McMichaels are accused of using, carrying and brandishing a firearm in a crime of violence. Travis McMichael is further charged with discharging a firearm in the commission of a violent crime.