Bernstein emphasized that the federal prosecution “does not require proof of hate. What it requires is proof the defendants acted because of race … meaning in this case, the defendants made assumptions about Ahmaud based on the color of his skin, chased him down and threatened and tried to catch him themselves — and that wouldn’t have happened if he was White. That’s exactly what the evidence shows.”
She cited texts and social media posts in which Travis McMichael, now 36, allegedly used the “n-word” about Black people and also referred to them as “animals, criminals, monkeys, sub-human savages.”
Defense lawyers rebutted the accusations by telling jurors the men were inspired to chase Arbery after they saw him running in the street, at a time when neighbors were on “high alert” over reports of potential property theft and trespassing. One homeowner had shared surveillance videos from a residential security camera, viewed by the McMichaels, that captured Arbery exploring his property, which was under construction.
The defense team called Arbery’s death an “American tragedy” and acknowledged that their clients — already convicted of murder in state court — were responsible for actions that caused his death. They said the epithets the men have used to describe African Americans were repugnant. But the lawyers for Bryan and the McMichaels emphasized that such language is not illegal and said the men had set out to follow Arbery in their pickup trucks to help their neighbors apprehend the man they suspected of the trespassing.
“As tragic and as unfortunate as the death of Ahmaud Arbery is, the evidence will show that Greg McMichael followed Arbery because he believed he was the man from the video at the home,” said A.J. Balbo, a defense lawyer. “And Greg McMichael was right.”
The opening statements in the high-profile case came shortly after U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood had seated a 12-member jury composed of eight White people, three Black people and one Hispanic person — a more diverse panel than in the state murder trial. Wood said she expects the trial to last between seven and 12 days.
In providing jury instructions, Wood said the burden of proof for the federal government is “quite high” in a case that civil rights advocates have said could have broad social implications at a time of rising white nationalism and an ongoing reckoning over racial justice.
The federal charges focus not on Arbery’s killing but rather on accusations that the McMichaels and Bryan intimidated Arbery and interfering with his right to use a public street because of his race, which qualifies as a hate crime. The defendants also are charged with kidnapping, and the McMichaels are facing a separate federal count of using firearms during a crime of violence.
Among those inside the courtroom on Monday were Arbery’s parents, Marcus Arbery and Wanda Cooper-Jones, and his sister, Diane Jackson.
Gregory McMichael’s wife, who is Travis’s mother, also was present. She did not attend jury selection.
Marcus Arbery, who left the courtroom during Bernstein’s opening statement, told reporters outside the courthouse that he was emotional after hearing her describing how his son was killed. He called the racist language that prosecutors said the defendants had used as “a sickness” and added that it was difficult “listening to all this hate.”
In describing the case, Bernstein sought to paint the defendants as making the leap, without evidence, that the Black man on the home surveillance video was responsible for reported thefts at the property — even though the homeowner told police the man had not taken anything and the videos appeared to show Arbery, in running shorts and a t-shirt, leaving the house without disturbing any property.
The McMichaels “persisted in their insistence that the black guy had to be up to no good,” Bernstein said. When Gregory McMichael, now 66, a former police investigator, saw Arbery running past his home in the Satilla Hills neighborhood, he ran inside to get his son, Travis. The two men grabbed firearms and chased Arbery in a pickup truck, with Bryan, now 52, joining the chase in his own truck.
Prosecutors described the men cutting off Arbery’s route as he tried to escape and cornering him, forcing him to try to disarm Travis McMichael, who responded by shooting him. Bryan, who recorded the incident on a cellphone, told investigators that Travis McMichael used a racial epithet after the shooting — an allegation the younger McMichael has denied.
Defense lawyers sketched a picture of a neighborhood in which residents were sharing stories of increasing crime and urging each other to be more vigilant. They said a local police officer had canvassed the neighborhood and discussed with Gregory McMichael the reports that a man had been seen trespassing on the surveillance video.
“The government is describing a vigilante, which makes me think of Batman and Robin,” said Amy Lee Copeland, a lawyer for Travis McMichael. “Travis was trying to be a good neighbor. He and father were trying to help everybody… even if it had disastrous results.”
On Monday morning, jurors identified themselves by their town of residence. The majority of White jurors said they were from relatively affluent suburban communities, including the seaside community of Tybee Island, outside of Savannah, and an affluent bedroom community south of Savannah called Richmond Hill. At least four jurors said they were from Augusta, home to the PGA Masters golf tournament. Two of the White jurors live in Statesboro, home to Georgia Southern University.
The three Black jurors said they hail from smaller towns, and two of them identified as working-class.
There are two truck drivers in the jury, one man and one woman, both of whom are White. The majority of jurors said they have some college education; at least two have master’s degrees and one has a doctorate.
Nakamura reported from Washington.