Arbery killers’ unsuccessful pleas could complicate hate crime trial

By RUSS BYNUM Associated Press

BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — Convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, the men who prosecuted and killed Ahmaud Arbery have already faced serious hurdles in finding impartial jurors for their upcoming federal hate crimes trial .

Now, with jury selection due to begin on Monday, there’s a new complication: Two of the defendants – the man who shot Arbery and his father – last week offered to plead guilty before an agreement was reached. they had concluded with prosecutors collapsing.

This photo combo shows, from left, Travis McMichael, William “Roddie” Bryan and Gregory McMichael during their trial at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. The men were convicted of murder in November 2021 for chasing Ahmaud Arbery in pickup trucks when he was out jogging, cutting off the black man’s escape and blasting him to death with a shotgun. (Pool, Folder)

Travis and Greg McMichael ultimately decided against a plea bargain, but not before their willingness to strike a deal that would have included confessions of guilt was widely reported by news organizations. Legal experts said it was another detail that could taint would-be jurors who have been following the case in the news and on social media.

“This is a case where it’s hard to imagine there could be more publicity,” said Don Samuel, an Atlanta defense attorney who is not involved in the case. “It’s such a desperate situation for them as far as advertising goes.”

The McMichaels armed themselves and chased Arbery, 25, in a van on February 23, 2020, after spotting him driving past their home just outside the port city of Brunswick. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.

>>> WATCH THE TRIAL ON DEMAND: GA v. McMICHAEL, et al. (2021)

The McMichaels and Bryan were convicted of murder the day before Thanksgiving by a jury in Glynn County Superior Court, where they were sentenced to life in prison last month. All three have also been charged in a separate federal hate crimes case, which alleges the murderous prosecution violated Arbery’s civil rights and that he was targeted for being black.

Due to the intense public interest surrounding the case, the federal jury panel is drawn from a broader area than the average federal trial. U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ordered that notices of jury duty be mailed to about 1,000 people in 43 Georgia counties. Some people summoned to serve as jurors could have a four-hour drive to the courthouse.

The judge did not say how long she expects it will take to seat a panel of 12 jurors plus four alternates. In the state murder trial, jury selection exceeded two weeks.

“I anticipate the jury selection process will be slow,” Wood said in court Monday. “I demand that he be careful, methodical and thorough.”

Samuel said he thinks the judge will eventually be able to find enough jurors who haven’t followed the case closely and don’t have strong opinions about it.

“You’re going to have to find jurors who don’t read day-to-day news,” he said.

Legal experts say it may be harder for prosecutors to prove Arbery was the victim of a hate crime than to convict his prosecutors of murder.

“They’re going to have to show they intended to hurt or harm Ahmaud Arbery because of his race,” said Ed Tarver, an Augusta attorney and former U.S. attorney who oversaw federal prosecutions in the south. from Georgia. “In all of these hate crime cases, I think the bar is extremely high. They are very difficult to prove.

Legal documents and pretrial testimony indicate that federal prosecutors plan to use text messages and social media posts to show that the defendants expressed racist views before the shooting.

FILE – In this May 17, 2020 file photo, a newly painted mural by Ahmaud Arbery is displayed in Brunswick, Georgia, where the 25-year-old was fatally shot in February. It was painted by Miami artist Marvin Weeks. (AP Photo/Sarah Blake Morgan, File)

FBI Agent Skyler Barnes said in court Monday that investigators reviewing Travis McMichael’s cellphone and social media records found “frequent use of racial slurs, including references to African Americans in as monkeys, savages and n-ers”.

The challenge for prosecutors will be to persuade jurors that such racist beliefs drove the decisions to hunt and shoot Arbery, said Michael J. Moore, an Atlanta attorney and former U.S. attorney for the Central District of Georgia.

“A defendant may sound bigoted and say terrible, discolored things in text messages, but can you translate that to why he pulled the trigger on a shotgun?” said Moore. “It’s a very different level of evidence.”

During a preliminary hearing in the state murder case on June 4, 2020, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Richard Dial said Bryan told investigators he heard Travis McMichael utter an insult racist after shooting Arbery. Travis McMichael’s attorneys have denied it.

Defense attorneys in the murder case argued that the McMichaels were justified in prosecuting Arbery because they had reasonable suspicion that he had committed crimes in their neighborhood. Travis McMichael testified that he shot Arbery in self-defense as Arbery threw punches and grabbed his gun.

The McMichaels had planned to plead guilty to a hate crime charge after prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to offer a 30-year sentence that would include a request to transfer the McMichaels from the Georgia state prison system. to federal custody. Wood rejected the deal on Monday, saying he would have locked it in a specific sentence. Arbery’s parents argued that conditions in a federal prison wouldn’t be as harsh.

At the time Arbery was killed, Georgia was one of four US states without a hate crime law. Although his death prompted Georgian lawmakers to move quickly to impose additional penalties for crimes motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation or other factors, there were reportedly no charges for the crimes. hateful in Arbery’s murder if federal authorities had not prosecuted them.

“To me, this shows the importance of having this federal legislation. It really served to fill in the gaps where you had some,” said Kami Chavis, a former federal prosecutor who is now a law professor at Wake Forest University in North Carolina.

Chavis said the decision to press the federal hate crimes case even after the McMichaels and Bryan were convicted of murder sent a message that “in our country, you can’t kill or hurt anyone. ‘one because of status or race’.

For the latest news and trial updates on GA v. McMichael, et al., visit CourtTV.com/Arbery

About Jessica J. Bass

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