In Trial Opening, Two Starkly Different Views of Ahmaud Arbery’s Death

The prosecutor said Mr. Arbery had come “under attack.” Defense attorneys said their clients were justified in chasing him and trying to detain him.,

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BRUNSWICK, Ga. — The trial of the three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery opened on Friday with the prosecution arguing that Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, had come “under attack,” while defense attorneys said that their clients were justified in suspecting Mr. Arbery of burglary, chasing him in their trucks and trying to detain him until the police arrived.

A lawyer for one defendant, Travis McMichael — the man who, at the end of the chase, fatally shot Mr. Arbery at close range with a pump-action shotgun — also argued that his client had acted in self-defense. The lawyer, Robert G. Rubin, said that because Mr. Arbery confronted and fought with Mr. McMichael at the end of the chase, Mr. McMichael had “no choice” but to fire on Mr. Arbery, “because if this guy gets his gun, he’s dead, or his dad’s dead.”

Mr. Rubin portrayed Mr. McMichael as a selfless helper, saying he had felt a “duty” to protect his neighborhood, which had suffered a series of property crimes before the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020, when the killing occurred.

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Robert Rubin, a lawyer for the defendant Travis McMichael.Credit…Octavio Jones/Reuters

Mr. McMichael, he said, had probable cause in executing a citizen’s arrest under Georgia law because he had seen Mr. Arbery and confronted him after one of Mr. Arbery’s repeat visits to a partly constructed house in the neighborhood nearly two weeks before the shooting.

The lead prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, painted a starkly different picture of Mr. Arbery’s pursuers. She said that Mr. McMichael and the other two defendants — Mr. McMichael’s father, Gregory McMichael, and a neighbor, William Bryan — had made a series of reckless “driveway decisions” that day as they decided to chase Mr. Arbery.

Ms. Dunikoski said the men had “assumed the worst” about Mr. Arbery and were unjustified in pursuing him because they had no knowledge that he had committed a crime.

“All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions,” said Ms. Dunikoski, a senior assistant district attorney for Cobb County, Ga. “And they made decisions in their driveways based on those assumptions that took a young man’s life.”

The general thrust of these arguments had been telegraphed by lawyers in pretrial motions and interviews. On Friday, they were presented to a jury that had taken more than two weeks to select, and ended up composed of one Black person and 11 white people — a lopsided ratio that prompted some activists, residents and relatives of Mr. Arbery to wonder whether the trial would be fair.

The first witness called in the trial gave a gruesome account of the scene after the killing. When William Duggan, a Glynn County police officer, arrived in the Satilla Shores neighborhood that afternoon, he said he saw Mr. Arbery lying on the ground with people milling about. Seated on the ground nearby was Travis McMichael.

“I could see he was covered in blood,” Mr. Duggan said. “There was blood all over, and I remember at some point asking if he was OK.”

Mr. McMichael replied, “No, I’m not OK,” Mr. Duggan testified. “I just eff-ing killed somebody.”

A good portion of the opening statements focused on the fact that Mr. Arbery had been spotted inside the partly built house on the McMichaels’ block moments before the men chased him. Mr. Arbery had been captured on surveillance cameras visiting the house four other times, but no evidence has emerged that he ever took anything.

Judge Timothy R. Walmsley of Superior Court has prohibited the jury from hearing that Mr. Arbery, according to court documents, was suffering from mental illness, and had reported auditory delusions that sometimes commanded him to “rob and steal.” The judge also prohibited jurors from hearing about Mr. Arbery’s criminal record, saying it was “neither relevant or admissible.”

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A mural of Mr. Arbery in Brunswick, Ga.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

On the afternoon of Feb. 23, another neighbor saw Mr. Arbery in the house and called the police. But Ms. Dunikoski, the prosecutor, said the defendants themselves lacked any “immediate knowledge” that Mr. Arbery had committed a crime that day.

Asked by the police later if Mr. Arbery had broken into the house, Gregory McMichael said he did not know. “My intention was to stop this guy so that he could be arrested or be identified at the very least,” he told the police, according to Ms. Dunikoski.

The prosecution’s assertion that the three men had no “immediate knowledge” that a crime was committed represents an effort to push back against the defense lawyers’ assertion that the men were making a legal arrest under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, which was largely repealed by the state Legislature after widespread outcry over Mr. Arbery’s killing. That law previously stated that a private person may arrest someone “if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”

Ms. Dunikoski described at length how the three men chased Mr. Arbery for five minutes as he ran through their neighborhood, trying to evade them — the McMichaels in one pickup truck and Mr. Bryan in another.

At some point during the pursuit, she said, Gregory McMichael, who was armed with a handgun, said to Mr. Arbery, “Stop or I’ll blow your fucking head off.”

Understand the Killing of Ahmaud Arbery

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The shooting. On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed after being chased by three white men while jogging near his home on the outskirts of Brunswick, Ga. The slaying of Mr. Arbery was captured in a graphic video that was widely viewed by the public.

The victim. Mr. Arbery was a former high school football standout and an avid jogger. At the time of his death, he was living with his mother outside the small coastal city in Southern Georgia.

The suspects. Three white men — Gregory McMichael, 67, his 35-year-old son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — stand accused of murdering Mr. Arbery. They have also been indicted on federal hate crime charges. The men told authorities they suspected Mr. Arbery of committing a series of break-ins.

The fallout. The release of the video of the shooting sparked nationwide protests and prompted Georgia lawmakers to make significant changes to the state’s criminal law, including passage of the state’s first hate crimes statute.

The trial. With an unsettling video set to play a starring role in court, the case bears similarities to that of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer found guilty of murdering George Floyd. The trial is likely to address issues such as vigilantism and the role racism played in the three defendants’ actions.

The jury. After an extraordinarily long process, 12 jurors in the case were selected. The jury, which is made up of residents of Glynn County, where more than a quarter of the population is Black, only includes one Black person.

She said that Mr. Bryan, who had joined the chase later than the McMichaels, tried to hit Mr. Arbery four times with his pickup truck, at one point forcing him into a ditch.

Ms. Dunikoski stressed that Mr. Arbery was unarmed. And she played the video that Mr. Bryan recorded on his cellphone, showing the moments when the two trucks had pinned Mr. Arbery in. She said that Gregory McMichael later contended that Mr. Arbery had been “trapped like a rat.”

The video shows Travis McMichael pointing the shotgun at Mr. Arbery as he ran toward the McMichaels’ truck. The two men appear to meet head-on in front of the vehicle.

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Linda Dunikoski, the lead prosecutor, said the defendants had “assumed the worst” about Ahmaud Arbery and were unjustified in pursuing him because they had no knowledge that he had committed a crime.Credit…Octavio Jones/Reuters

“What did McMichael do with that shotgun?” Ms. Dunikoski said. “He stepped around that open door and moved toward Mr. Arbery.”

Ms. Dunikowski said that in interviews with the police, Travis McMichael said that Mr. Arbery attacked him and that he was acting in self-defense.

But she also said that when the police asked him if Mr. Arbery grabbed his shotgun, Mr. McMichael said, “I want to say he did, but I honestly cannot remember.”

Mr. Rubin, the lawyer for Travis McMichael, spent the first part of his statement focusing on the break-ins and property crimes in Satilla Shores, where Mr. McMichael was living in his parents’ house. It was a neighborhood “on edge,” Mr. Rubin said.

In some of the instances in which Mr. Arbery was captured on video inside the partly built house, its owner, Larry English, had called the police, but Mr. Arbery had vanished before they arrived. Mr. English, Mr. Rubin said, had been telling neighbors that a suspicious person had been visiting the house and that items had been taken from a boat he sometimes kept on the property.

On the day of the confrontation and the killing, Mr. Rubin said, Mr. McMichael had probable cause to assume that a burglary had occurred — thus giving him the right to make a citizen’s arrest. And, he said, Mr. McMichael had encountered Mr. Arbery himself 12 days before the shooting and had reason to suspect that he might be armed.

After the shooting, Mr. Rubin said, Mr. McMichael was “distraught” and “upset.”

“There’s no glee in having done what he just did. It’s awful,” he said.

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