Ahmaud Arbery murder: trial laid bare America’s faultlines on race
As the guilty verdicts were read aloud, one after the other, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, could be seen in the courthouse with tears in her eyes.
The three white men who murdered her son back in February 2020, claiming they had acted in self-defense during an attempted citizen’s arrest, expressed little emotion.
But the verdict, which holds each of these men responsible for murder, is an indictment not only of their defense in court, described by prosecutors as “completely made up for trial”, but elements of the local criminal justice system itself, which could so easily have allowed none of them to stand trial at all.
Speaking on the steps of Glynn county courthouse, the Rev Al Sharpton summed up the case neatly. “Let us more than anything thank the mother and father of Ahmaud Arbery,” he said. “They lost a son. But their son will go down in history as one that proved that if you hold on, that justice can come.
“Let the word go forth all over the world, that a jury of 11 whites and one Black in the deep south stood up in the courtroom and said that Black lives do matter.”
Wednesday’s verdict capped almost two years of anguish for the Arbery family, marked by allegations of corruption, bias and racism both inside and outside the courtroom. The family first waited for months as the initial investigation into their son’s shooting stalled and was passed around to three separate local district attorneys.
Greg McMichael, a former Glynn county policeman, was a retired investigator for the Brunswick judicial circuit’s district attorney office, which was first handed the case. After that district attorney, Jackie Johnson (who was later indicted for allegedly interfering in the investigation and blocking the arrest of Travis McMichael), recused herself. The second district attorney assigned the case, Waycross judicial circuit’s George Barnhill, was also forced to recuse himself months into the investigation. It emerged that Barnhill’s son had known and worked with Greg McMichael. Barnhill did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday’s verdict.
Shortly after the third DA took the case, a shocking eyewitness video filmed by William “Roddie” Bryan emerged, and state investigators were assigned to the case. Following release of the video, Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud Arbery’s father, told the Guardian: “They lynched him. He didn’t deserve that.”
Eventually all three men were arrested, almost three months after the shooting occurred.
As the case progressed through initial court hearings it emerged there was further evidence of racist beliefs held by all three men.
Phone messages and social media posts examined by investigators had revealed use of “racial” language before and after the shooting. Bryan had testified to law enforcement officers that Travis McMichael used a racist slur shortly after shooting Arbery and as his body lay on the ground nearby. Body-camera footage from responding officers showed Travis McMichael’s truck had a license plate that bore the Confederate battle flag.
Notably, prosecutors elected not to mention this evidence during trial, focused instead on a forensic unpicking of the events of 23 February 2020 using the cellphone footage, CCTV footage, police interviews and forensic science testimony.
And, after completing two weeks of exhaustive jury selection, defense attorneys struck 11 potential Black jurors, leaving a final jury of 11 white members and one Black member, vastly disproportionate to Glynn county’s racial demographics.
Arbery’s mother described the selection as “devastating” at the time, but added she remained confident the jury would “make the right decision”. Judge Timothy Walmsley acknowledged the appearance of “intentional discrimination” by the attorneys but concluded his hands were tied by the matter as the attorneys had not articulated deliberate discrimination as they struck each Black juror.
As the trial began the audacity and racism from the defense side continued.
Bryan’s lawyer, Kevin Gough, who had complained throughout jury selection that the pool did not contain enough “Bubbas or Joe six-packs” (a reference to white middle-aged males without a college degree) also complained about peaceful activists who sat outside the courthouse each day. These activists included Arbery’s soft-spoken aunt Diane, in her late 60s, who sat on the lawn in a fold-out chair recalling stories of her nephew to journalists and campaigners.
Later, in a statement branded “reprehensible” by Walmsley, Gough objected to Black pastors being allowed into the courtroom to console Arbery’s mother and father during a trial that saw videos of their son’s death played repeatedly and graphic autopsy images of his bloodied body.
“There’s only so many pastors they [Arbery’s family] can have. If their pastor’s Rev Al Sharpton right now, that’s fine. But that’s it. We don’t want any more Black pastors in here or others,” said Gough, a former chair of the Glynn county Republican party and a disgraced former public defender.
Travis McMichael himself would be the defense’s last witness. He claimed was forced to fire three times on Arbery, who was unarmed, with his 12-gauge Remington shotgun because he feared for his and his father’s life. (Gregory McMichael was armed with a .357 magnum handgun.)
Under cross-examination McMichael was forced to concede he had not witnessed Arbery taking part in any break-ins that day and had never cited an attempt to conduct a citizen’s arrest during initial interviews with police. Prosecutors would later argue this highlighted how the alibis had been concocted after the murder.
It was during closing that the defense cast their attention to Arbery himself, with each of the three attorneys attempting to blame the 25-year-old for his own death.
Laura Hogue, representing Greg McMichael, argued that Arbery had “no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails” that he was a “recurring night-time intruder” whose presence was “frightening and unsettling”. She argued in front of the jury and Arbery’s parents, seated in the public gallery, that their son’s life had gone “astray” from that of “a beautiful teenager with a broad smile” to someone “acting erratically when approached and making terrible, unexpected, illogical choices”.
“I realise, probably more than any of you, what an incredibly unpopular thing that is to say. But in a courtroom, with Greg McMichael facing the charge of murder, somebody’s got to say it,” she said. “And believe me I’m proud to be the one to say it.”
Ultimately the depths to which the defense sank did not work on the jury. The video of Arbery’s murder told its own objective story, a fact that prosecutor Linda Dunikoski alluded to after the trial was complete.
Speaking at the same lectern as Sharpton had, the senior assistant district attorney for Cobb county said: “The verdict today was a verdict based on the facts and based on the evidence. And that was our goal. To bring that to that jury, so they could do the right thing, because the jury system works in this country.
She continued: “And when you present the truth to people and they can see it, they will do the right thing.”