A judge has ruled that the cases against all three defendants charged with murder in the death of Ahmaud Arbery can advance to the trial court. During a probable-cause hearing Thursday, Magistrate Court Judge Wallace Harrell found that there is enough evidence for the cases against Greg and Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan to proceed.
During the proceeding, a Georgia state investigator alleged that a white man was heard saying a racist slur as he stood over Arbery’s body, moments after killing him with three shots from a pump-action shotgun.
The evidence was presented to support murder charges against the three men connection with the deadly incident on Feb. 23 just outside Brunswick, Ga. It also could factor into a federal investigation into whether hate crime charges are warranted.
The three men appeared via video link from jail for their probable cause hearing following a week of angry protests in the United States over law enforcement biases against victims of colour.
The lead Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent in the case testified that the McMichaels and Bryan used their trucks to chase down and box in Arbery, who repeatedly reversed directions and ran into a ditch while trying to escape.
Travis McMichael then got out of his truck and confronted Arbery, later telling police he shot him in self-defence 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 again before he collapsed in the road, Dial said.
Confederate flag seen in video
Bryan, who recorded that video, said he heard McMichael say a racist epithet as he stood over Arbery’s body before police arrived, Dial said. Dial said Bryan gave investigators the information a week after the McMichaels’ arrest, and there’s no indication he said it to Glynn County investigators before that.
Dial also testified that police body camera from the shooting scene showed a Confederate flag sticker on a toolbox in Travis McMichael’s truck and at least two 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 doesn’t have a hate crime law.
Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s family, told reporters outside the courthouse that prosecutors had warned the family before the hearing of the coming testimony about the slur.
“It was still very difficult to hear in the context of a prolonged chase, that after he murdered Ahmaud Arbery and stood over his body, he used that racial epithet,” Merritt said.
Jesse Evans, appointed as a special prosecutor in the case, said Arbery “was chased, hunted down and ultimately executed” based on the evidence his team would present.
‘He could not escape’: Georgia agent
Under questioning by Jason Sheffield, an attorney for McMichael, Dial said he told police he raised his shotgun at Arbery from roughly 27 metres away and told him to stop and get on the ground.
That’s when Arbery ran around the passenger side of McMichael’s truck, and the two men met in front of the truck.
Dial said McMichael told police Arbery “squared up” like he was going to attack.
“There’s a statement that he might have had his hand on his shirt,” Dial said. “Travis McMichael said his adrenaline was pumping, and it all happened very quickly.”
He said McMichael then fired the first shot into Arbery’s chest.
Sheffield pressed Dial on whether he considered whether McMichael fired in self-defence.
“I don’t think it was self-defence by Mr. McMichael,” Dial replied. “I believe it was self-defence by Mr. Arbery.… I believe Mr. Arbery’s decision was to try to get away, and he found he could not escape.”
‘Gut feeling’ Arbery was a burglar
The evidence presented Thursday to support a murder trial also raised questions about the idea that the McMichaels and Bryan were legitimately carrying out a citizen’s arrest of a suspected burglar in their neighbourhood.
Dial testified that Greg McMichael 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 neighbourhood.
WATCH: Protests demand justice for Arbery:
Arbery’s family has said he was merely out jogging. The former high school football player ran to stay in shape and lived about three kilometres from the subdivision where he was killed. His mother said he planned to start technical college in the fall to become an electrician.
It wasn’t until May 7 that Greg McMichael, 64, and Travis McMichael, 34 were charged with felony murder and aggravated assault. Their arrests came two days after cellphone video of the shooting leaked online and stirred a national outcry. Bryan was charged later in the month.
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.
Defence 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.
Largely peaceful protests following the deaths of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky., and Arbery have led to outbreaks of violence in many larger cities, including Atlanta.
A small crowd gathered outside the courthouse in Brunswick, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp promised a “strong state law enforcement presence” during and after the hearing.