Ahmaud Arbery trial gets under way with opening statements

Prosecutor says three white men on trial for killing Arbery did everything 'based on assumptions'

Prosecutors and defence lawyers on Friday presented duelling portraits of Ahmaud Arbery, who was either an innocent black runner fatally shot by three white strangers or “a scary mystery” who had been seen prowling around a Georgia neighbourhood.

A Georgia prosecutor told a jury that the three white men on trial for the killing of Arbery wrongly assumed the worst about the black man when they chased and shot him as he jogged through their neighbourhood in February 2020.

“A very wise person once said, 'Don't assume the worst of another person's intentions,'" prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said in her opening statement, in which she described the accused threatening Arbery with violence.

“They assumed that he must have committed some crime that day. He tried to run around their truck and get way from these strangers, total strangers, who had already told him that they would kill him. And then they killed him.”

Gregory McMichael, 65, his son Travis McMichael, 35, and neighbour William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment and face life in prison if convicted on the most serious charge.

Prosecutors say when the accused saw a black man on a Sunday afternoon jog through a mostly white neighbourhood, they mistook him for someone fleeing a crime.

The men's defence lawyers said they were justified in trying to detain Arbery under a citizen's arrest law that was codified during the Civil War. That law was later repealed amid outrage over the killing, which spurred nationwide protests after mobile phone video surfaced more than two months later.

“All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions,” Ms Dunikoski said as she showed videos of Arbery's final minutes.

“They made decisions in their driveways based on those assumptions that took a young man's life and that is why we are here.”

She told the mostly white jury in Glynn County Superior Court they would see Arbery's Nike running shoes, their tread almost entirely worn away because he was such an avid runner.

A few minutes before he was killed, he was running “really fast” past the McMichaels' house, where the elder Mr McMichael was out in his driveway fixing cushions for his boat, Ms Dunikoski said.

Gregory McMichael ran inside his house to retrieve his handgun while hailing his son, who grabbed his 12-gauge shotgun. The two got in a pickup truck and began chasing Arbery, trying to ask him what he was running from.

“I assumed something was up,” Travis McMichael later told police when explaining why he chased Arbery, Ms Dunikoski told the jury.

Mr Bryan soon saw the chase from his own driveway and got in his own pickup truck to join in. Ms Dunikoski repeatedly called the truck a “5,000-pound lethal weapon” used to assault Arbery.

Mr Bryan tried to hit Arbery four times with his truck as he tried to force Arbery off the road into a ditch, Ms Dunikoski said. After a few minutes, Arbery was cornered.

“Ladies and gentleman, at this point in time, Mr Arbery is under attack by all three of these men,” she said.

She said the accused had deadly intent, pointing to something the elder Mr McMichael told police he shouted at Arbery: “Stop or I'll blow your [expletive] head off!”

He also told police they had trapped Arbery “like a rat".

Arbery's father left the courtroom before Mr Bryan's mobile phone video of the shooting was played, which shows the younger Mr McMichael pointing his shotgun at Arbery, who runs towards it before the fatal shots are fired. Arbery's mother sobbed into a man's shoulder in the courtroom gallery.

A defence lawyer for Travis McMichael put the shooting in a much different light. Robert Rubin described Arbery to the jury as “an intruder” who had four times been recorded on video “plundering around” a neighbouring house under construction.

The McMichaels gave chase, hoping to detain Arbery until police arrived, Mr Rubin said, but Arbery refused to stop and lunged towards Travis and his gun.

“It is a horrible, horrible video, and it’s tragic that Ahmaud Arbery lost his life,” Mr Rubin said.

“But at that point, Travis McMichael is acting in self-defence. He did not want to encounter Ahmaud Arbery physically. He was only trying to stop him for the police.”

Controversy erupted this week when prosecutors objected to a final jury consisting of 11 white jurors and one black juror. They argued that defence lawyers had cut eight potential jurors from the final panel because they were black, which the US Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley agreed that there appeared to be “intentional discrimination” but said Georgia law limited his authority to intervene because defence lawyers stated non-racial reasons for excluding black panelists from the jury.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: November 5th 2021, 8:59 PM