A state investigator alleged Thursday that a white man was heard saying a racist slur as he stood over Ahmaud Arbery’s body, moments after killing him with three shots from a pump-action shotgun.
In a hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to proceed with a murder trial, 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, 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-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 again before he collapsed in the road, Dial said.
“Mr. Bryan said that after the shooting took place before police arrival, while Mr. Arbery was on the ground, that he heard Travis McMichael make the statement, “f – – – – – – n – – – – -,” Dial said.
Bryan gave investigators the information a week after the McMichaels’ arrest, but there’s no indication he said it to Glynn County investigators before that, Dial added.
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.
Special prosecutor Jesse Evans said Arbery “was chased, hunted down and ultimately executed.”
Under questioning by Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, Dial said Travis told police he raised his shotgun at Arbery from roughly 90 feet (27 meters) away and told him to stop and get on the ground.
That’s when Arbery ran around the passenger side of Travis’ truck, and the two men met in front of the truck.
Dial said Travis 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 Travis then fired the first shot into Arbery’s chest.
Sheffield pressed Dial on whether he considered whether Travis fired in self-defense.
“I don’t think it was self-defense by Mr. McMichael,” Dial replied. “I believe it was self-defense by Mr. Arbery. …I believe Mr. Arbery’s decision was to try to get away and he found he could not escape.”
The testimony presented Thursday raises questions about the idea that the McMichaels and Bryan were legitimately carrying out a citizens’ arrest of a suspected burglar.
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 neighborhood.
The testimony also could factor into a federal investigation into whether hate crime charges are warranted.
Dial testified that police body camera footage showed a Confederate flag sticker on a toolbox in Travis’ truck and that investigators discovered 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 don’t have a hate crime law.
Lawyers for the defendants and the state acknowledged the extraordinary context for the hearing, after a week of angry nationwide protests over law enforcement biases against black victims. Most wore masks when they weren’t speaking, conscious of the need to prevent spreading the coronavirus. Most courts are closed due to the pandemic.
Glynn County Magistrate Judge Wallace E. Harrell must determine whether the evidence merits going to trial.
Arbery was killed Feb. 23 after Travis McMichael, 34, and his father, Greg McMichael, 64, 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 saw them driving by and joined the chase, Dial said.
It wasn’t until May 7 — two days after Bryan’s cellphone video leaked online and stirred a national outcry — that the McMichaels were charged with felony murder and aggravated assault. Bryan, 50, was later charged with felony murder and a criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
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.
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.
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.
A small crowd gathered outside the courthouse in Brunswick, where Gov. Brian Kemp promised a “strong state law enforcement presence” during and after the hearing.