Ahmaud Arbery’s killers ask appeals court to overturn their hate crime convictions

ATLANTA — A panel of judges heard arguments Wednesday from attorneys seeking to overturn the hate crime conviction of three white men who used pickup trucks to chase Ahmaud Arbery through a subdivision in Georgia in 2020 before one of them killed the Black man with a shotgun. Gregory McMichael; his son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, were found guilty of murder in a Georgia state court in November 2021. They were sentenced to life in prison. After a federal trial, they were found guilty of hate crimes and other charges in February 2022. They did not appear in court Wednesday.

From left, Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan during their trial at Glynn County Superior Court in Brunswick, Ga.
From left, Gregory McMichael, William “Roddie” Bryan and Travis McMichael during their trial at Glynn County Superior Court in Brunswick, Ga.Pool

The hate crimes trial centered on the three men’s racial bias — a motive that prosecutors in the state case largely avoided. Arbery’s family and civil rights leaders have likened his death to a modern-day lynching. His death, along with the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd at the hands of police in 2020, ignited furor over the shooting deaths of Black people and sparked international protests against racial injustice.

In a legal brief filed ahead of Wednesday’s arguments, prosecutors said: “As to why defendants chased, trapped, and ultimately killed Arbery, the evidence at trial showed that they held longstanding hate and prejudice toward Black people, while also supporting vigilante justice.”

The three men’s attorneys argue that evidence of past racist comments they made didn’t prove a racist intent to harm.

The attorneys also argued that the hate crime conviction should be thrown out because Arbery was not killed on a public street, which they said is required for the defendants to be found guilty under federal law.

Travis McMichael’s appeals attorney Amy Lee Copeland said Wednesday before the judges from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and in an earlier legal brief, that prosecutors had not proven that the streets of the Satilla Shores neighborhood where Arbery was killed were public roads, as the men’s indictment charged.

Judge Elizabeth Branch responded that a county official in Glynn County, where the neighborhood is, testified that the streets in Satilla Shores are officially designated public streets. 

A.J. Balbo, Gregory McMichael’s attorney, said his client pursued Arbery because he had seen Arbery on a security camera video, not simply because he was Black. Balbo conceded that Gregory McMichael’s actions displayed “a hypervigilantism.” Before he was killed, Arbery was recorded on security camera videos entering a neighboring home under construction on multiple occasions. None of the videos showed him stealing.

Bryan’s attorney, Pete Theodocion, challenged the attempted kidnapping charge that all three men were convicted of. The government, he said, had to prove that the defendants attempted to confine Arbery against his will and hold him for a benefit. 

“You have to be acting out of a want of a personal benefit,” he said, as he argued that the three men went after Arbery to protect the community from someone they believed had committed a crime.

“The benefit here I think the government alleged was vigilantism, the jury apparently decided that that among other things was the case,” Judge Britt Grant responded.

Branch told Theodocion that she was not sure why a benefit that extends to the community would not also include the defendants, as they were members of the community.

Prosecutor Brant Levine urged the judges to uphold the hate crime convictions.

“I’d like to begin by focusing on what this case is really about, that Mr. Arbery would be alive today had he not been a Black man running on the streets of Satilla Shores,” he said. 

Levine said that there is sufficient evidence to support each guilty verdict and that the defendants would not have acted criminally had they merely questioned Arbery if they believed he looked suspicious in their neighborhood.

“Had the McMichaels driven up to Ahmaud and said, ‘Excuse me, can we talk to you about what you were doing in that house?,’ We wouldn’t be here today,” Levine said. “We’re here today because when they went up to Ahmaud, they pulled out their guns, they yelled at him to get on the ground and they chased him. Roddie Bryan blocked his exit from the neighborhood, so he couldn’t leave until, in Greg McMichael’s words, they trapped him like a rat.”

He added: “Why did they take those extreme measures? Why did they terrorize Ahmaud for nearly five minutes?”

Levine also argued that prosecutors had proven that Arbery was killed on public roads.

About three dozen people, including members of Arbery’s family and others from the community, attended a rally outside the courthouse to protest the appeal.

“This hate crimes conviction is so important because it’s the first federal hate crimes conviction in the state of Georgia,” Gerald Griggs, president of Georgia NAACP, said in an interview after the rally. “And so we need to make sure we underscored the reason why people were protesting, the reason why we marched and we voted.” 

Marcus Arbery thanked those who had supported his family since his son’s death. Arbery’s aunt, Diane Jackson, said the appeal had reignited pain for her family. 

“I am so hurt still because when we saw what happened at first, we thought this would be over with now,” she said. “The way they took my nephew’s life, this has destroyed my family.” 

On Feb. 23, 2020, Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after they saw him running through their neighborhood in Brunswick. Bryan joined the chase in a separate pickup truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery in the street.

After the video leaked online, it thrust the case into the national spotlight and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police. The video drew widespread outrage and raised concerns about why it took law enforcement officials more than two months to make arrests.

The appellate judges did not say when they would rule. If the U.S. appeals court overturns any of their federal convictions, the McMichaels and Bryan would remain in prison.

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