In Trial of Men Accused of Arbery Murder, Jurors Consider Security Videos
Ahmaud Arbery was recorded at the site of a partially constructed home several times. The footage will be central to the question of whether the defendants had the legal right to chase him.,
In Trial of Men Accused of Arbery Murder, Jurors Consider Security Videos
Ahmaud Arbery was recorded at the site of a partially constructed home several times. The footage will be central to the question of whether the defendants had the legal right to chase him.
ATLANTA — The graphic footage of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery is not the only crucial video evidence in the trial of the three men accused of murdering him.
On Thursday, a jury in Brunswick, Ga., was shown surveillance camera footage that depicts Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, making several visits to the same partially constructed home at 220 Satilla Drive in the months before he died. In each instance, Mr. Arbery, an avid jogger, is in shorts. He looks around the house and leaves.
The last video, recorded in the early afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020, shows Mr. Arbery visiting the home minutes before he was chased by the three white defendants, who have said they suspected him of a series of break-ins in the neighborhood. That chase ended with Mr. Arbery being fatally shot by one of the men in the middle of a nearby suburban street.
Jurors on Thursday were also shown a videotaped deposition of the home’s owner, Larry English. He described his concerns about the man who kept showing up in the house he was building, and the items he suspected had been stolen from him. He described his calls to the police alerting them to the man’s presence. And he said he had texted his concerns about the man, as well as two other trespassers, to a neighbor in the Satilla Shores subdivision, which defense lawyers said was “on edge” over a wave of property crime.
The videos, and Mr. English’s response to them, are likely to be central to the question of whether the defendants had the legal right to chase Mr. Arbery, based on a Georgia citizen’s arrest statute that has since been largely repealed. Indeed, in five days of testimony by prosecution witnesses, it is this legal question that seems to have loomed largest in the trial — larger, even, than the matters of race and racism that are intertwined with the Deep South story of a Black man being pursued by three white men.
Mr. English, a general contractor who lives in Douglas, Ga., about 90 miles from Brunswick, suffers from serious health issues, and did not give his testimony in person. An avid fisherman, he was building the house on Satilla Drive because it backs up to the Little Satilla River. He had built a dock on the property and occasionally kept boats there.
During his deposition, Mr. English described the numerous times that video of Mr. Arbery appeared on security cameras around the property. The footage was sent to his cellphone, and in some cases, he called the Glynn County Police Department, asking that an officer go to the house to check things out. Although Mr. English was concerned about theft, the videos never showed Mr. Arbery taking anything from the property.
Linda Dunikoski, the lead prosecutor, in court this week.Credit…Pool photo by Stephen B. Morton
At one point, Mr. English, who was monitoring the situation from afar, exchanged text messages with a man named Diego Perez who lived near the house. Mr. English sent Mr. Perez video footage of Mr. Arbery on the property, as well as footage of another man and woman who were detected at the house one night.
Notably, Mr. English said he never directly shared with the three defendants his concerns that Mr. Arbery had been on his property. In fact, he said he barely knew two of the defendants, Travis McMichael, the man who shot Mr. Arbery, and his father, Gregory McMichael, whom he said he had met only briefly. He said he had never met the third defendant, William Bryan.
Linda Dunikoski, the lead prosecutor in the case, may use such details to buttress her argument, laid out in her opening statement last Friday, that the three defendants rushed into action based on flawed “assumptions and driveway decisions,” but without “immediate knowledge” that a crime had occurred.
Ms. Dunikoski’s language echoes that found in what was Georgia citizen’s arrest law at the time, which stated that a private person could arrest someone if an offense was committed in their presence, or within their “immediate knowledge.”
However, in opening statements for the defense, Robert Rubin, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, brought attention to another aspect of the law, which stated that if someone believed that another person had committed a felony — and if that person was escaping or trying to escape — it was legal to try to arrest the fleeing person if the pursuer harbored “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”
Mr. Rubin contends that Mr. English allowed suspicion to spread in the neighborhood by sharing the videos of Mr. Arbery’s unauthorized entries with Mr. Perez and the police, and by letting it be known that some property had been stolen from his boat.
“We’re not contending there was a crime committed in their presence,” Mr. Rubin said of the defendants. “But there was probable cause to believe a felony had been committed” by Mr. Arbery, he said, “and that this man was attempting to escape or flee.”
Robert Rubin, a defense lawyer for Travis McMichael, speaking in court.Credit…Pool photo by Octavio Jones
One key way the information spread, Mr. Rubin said, was when a Glynn County police officer canvassed the neighborhood, showing neighbors still images from the video and asking if they were familiar with the man pictured.
In Mr. Rubin’s cross-examination, he drew out the serious fears that Mr. English apparently harbored as the videos of visitors to his property continued to show up on his phone, including a concern that a drive-by shooting might occur.
Understand the Killing of Ahmaud Arbery
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 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.
In one call, Mr. English told an operator on a nonemergency phone line that there was a trespasser at the house. The man, he said, was Black, with curly hair, tattoos down his arms and appeared drunk or on drugs. By the time authorities arrived to the house, the man was gone.
“You wanted him checked out, you wanted him removed from the property,” Mr. Rubin said. “It didn’t look good.”
Mr. English agreed.
Each of the defendants in the case has been indicted on nine counts, including malice murder, which involves showing that a killing was carried out with “an abandoned and malignant heart.” Prosecutors this week appeared to be laying the groundwork for that charge by eliciting testimony from police officers that showed some of the harsh language Gregory McMichael used to describe Mr. Arbery shortly after he was killed, including referring to him with a vulgar insult.
Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor based in Los Angeles, pointed out that the men were also charged with felony murder, which applies when a death is caused in the course of committing another felony, “irrespective of malice.”
Among those felonies, in this case, are false imprisonment and aggravated assault, and Mr. Rahmani said prosecutors were also laying the groundwork for these charges. The jury heard one police officer recount how Mr. Bryan tried to cut off Mr. Arbery numerous times with his truck while Mr. Arbery ran through the subdivision.
And at one point, Gregory McMichael told the police that Mr. Arbery, at the end of the chase, had been trapped “like a rat.”
So far, there has been no mention of the assertion, revealed by a state investigator last year, that Mr. Bryan claims to have overheard Travis McMichael use a racist slur shortly after killing Mr. Arbery. Nor has there been mention of the fact that the front of Travis McMichael’s truck had a vanity license plate showing the old Georgia state flag, which incorporated the Confederate battle flag in its design.
Also on Thursday, Kevin Gough, the lawyer who is representing Mr. Bryan, objected to the presence of the Rev. Al Sharpton and other high-profile African American leaders in the courtroom, saying it could intimidate the jury.
“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” he said to the judge.