Prosecutors said Monday that the three white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, made “decisions about Ahmaud” based on the “color of his skin.”
“At the end of the day, the evidence will prove that if Ahmaud Arbery had been white, he would have gone for a jog, checked out a cool house and made it home for supper,” Bobbi Bernstein, deputy chief of the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, told jurors in opening statements of the highly anticipated federal hate crimes trial of Arbery’s killers.
“They made assumptions about Ahmaud because of the color of his skin, and it would not have happened [if] he was white,” she said.
Bernstein said Travis McMichael, the man who shot Arbery, had a history of using racial slurs. For example, on Jan. 2, 2020, a friend shared a video with him of a Black man lighting a firecracker.
Bernstein said McMichael had responded to the friend by saying, “It would have been cooler if it blew that fucking n****r’s head off.”
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood sat 12 jurors and four alternates on Friday from a pool of 64 people who were judged qualified to serve as impartial jurors following a week of questioning on their views on racism and Arbery’s murder.
Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, as well as William “Roddie” Bryan, were all convicted of felony murder in a Georgia county court in November. The three men were sentenced to life in prison in January. Bryan was granted the possibility of parole, but the McMichaels were not.
While defense attorneys stated that Arbery’s killing was “an American tragedy,” they argued that the McMichaels pursued Arbery because they falsely believed he was committing burglaries in the Satilla Shores neighborhood.
At the federal trial, the government is expected to contend that the McMichaels and Bryan chased and killed Arbery because he was Black, thereby violating his civil rights. The men were also charged with attempted kidnapping. The trial could last up to 12 days, according to U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood.
The McMichaels initially reached plea deals with the Department of Justice, but Godbey Wood canceled the deals after Arbery’s family strongly objected to provisions that would have allowed the two men to serve their time in a federal facility instead of Georgia state prison.
The day of Arbery’s murder on Feb. 23, 2020, the McMichaels chased him in a pickup truck, armed with a gun. Bryan followed, attempting to corner and cut Arbery off during the chase.
Criminal charges surrounding Arbery’s killing were not filed until months later, when a video Bryan filmed surfaced, showing Travis McMichael pulling the trigger and fatally shooting Arbery.
Protests erupted throughout the country and lasted for months. Arbery’s case has become a central example of America’s struggle with race — the focus of the federal hate crimes trial. In June 2020, Georgia enacted new hate crimes legislation.