BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — A state investigator alleged Thursday that a white man was heard saying a racial slur as he stood over Ahmaud Arbery’s body, moments after killing him with three shots from a pump-action shotgun.
The lead Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent in the case testified that Travis and Greg McMichael and a third man in another pickup, William “Roddie” Bryan, repeatedly used their trucks to chase down and box in Arbery, who repeatedly reversed directions and even jumped into a ditch in a desperate struggle to escape.
Travis McMichael then got out of his truck and confronted Arbery. He told police he shot him in self defense after Arbery refused his order to get on the ground, Special Agent Richard Dial said. A close examination of the video of the shooting shows the first shot was to Arbery’s chest, the second was to his hand, and the third was to his chest before he collapsed in the road, Dial said.
The driver of the second pickup truck, William “Roddie” Bryan, who recorded that video, said he heard the gunman say a racist epithet as he stood over Arbery’s body before police arrived.
Special prosecutor Jesse Evans said Arbery “was chased, hunted down and ultimately executed.”
The evidence presented to support murder charges against the McMichaels and Bryan challenges the self-defense claim. Dial also described evidence that questions the idea that the three men were legitimately carrying out a citizens’ arrest of a suspected burglar. He testified that Greg McMichaels told police that “he didn’t know if Mr. Arbery had stolen anything or not, but he had a gut feeling” that Arbery had committed prior break-ins in the neighborhood.
Thursday’s testimony also could factor into a federal investigation into whether hate crime charges are warranted.
Dial testified that investigators found a Confederate symbol in Travis’ McMichael’s truck and several more racial slurs in messages on his phone. The U.S. Department of Justice said on May 11 that it is “assessing all the evidence to determine whether federal hate crime charges are appropriate.” Georgia is one of the few states that don’t have a hate crime law.
Travis McMichael, 34, his father Greg McMichael, 64, and Bryan, 50, were charged with murder more than two months after the Arbery was killed, after a series of recusals by local prosecutors and the emergence of Bryan’s video of the final encounter led to a state takeover of the case.
Lawyers for the defendants and the state acknowledged in court the extraordinary context for the hearing, following a week of angry protests in the U.S. over law enforcement biases against black victims. Most wore masks when they approached the bench or when they weren’t speaking, conscious of the need to prevent spreading the coronavirus while most courts are closed due to the pandemic.
Glynn County Magistrate Judge Wallace E. Harrell must determine whether authorities have enough evidence of murder to go to trial.
Arbery was killed Feb. 23 after the father and son armed themselves and gave chase when they spotted the 25-year-old black man running in their neighborhood just outside the port city of Brunswick. Bryan said he spotted them driving by and joined the chase, Dial said.
It wasn’t until May 7 that the three men were charged with felony murder and aggravated assault. The McMichaels’ arrests came two days after cellphone video of the shooting leaked online and stirred a national outcry.
Bryan, 50, filmed the video. He also was arrested and charged with felony murder and illegally using a vehicle to try to confine and detain Arbery.
Georgia law defines felony murder as a killing caused by the commission of an underlying felony. It does not require intent to kill. The minimum penalty is life in prison with a chance of parole.
Largely peaceful protests following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and Arbery have led to outbreaks of violence in many larger cities, including Atlanta. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp promised a “strong state law enforcement presence” in the Brunswick area Thursday to coincide with the court hearing.
Defense attorneys requested the hearing to make prosecutors show whether they have probable cause to charge the men with murder.
Greg McMichael told police after the shooting in February that he suspected Arbery of committing break-ins in the neighborhood. He said Arbery attacked his son before being shot.
Arbery’s family has said he was merely out jogging. The former high school football player ran to stay in shape and lived less than 2 miles (3.2 kilometers) from the subdivision where he was killed. His mother said he planned to start technical college in the fall to become an electrician.
Defense attorneys for both McMichaels have said much remains unknown about what led to the shooting and have cautioned against rushing to judgment. An attorney for Bryan has said he was merely a witness to Arbery’s death.
All three defendants remain jailed in Glynn County. A different judge will have to decide whether to allow them to go free on bond.