Attorneys for three white men charged with Arbery’s murder say jurors should hear evidence that the victim was aggressive toward authority figures and was diagnosed with a serious mental illness.
(CN) — Three white men charged with the fatal shooting of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery appeared in Georgia state court Wednesday for a pretrial hearing on a dozen motions, many of them related to questions about whether evidence of the victim’s criminal history and mental illness can be presented at the October trial.
Attorneys for defendants Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan argued that Arbery exhibited a pattern of aggression toward authority figures.
“When confronted about his actions by people who appeared to have some authority — whether it be a business owner, a neighbor, police, or his mom — [Arbery’s] response to that is to get angry and aggressive, physically and verbally,” argued attorney Jason Sheffield, who represents Travis McMichael.
Sheffield told Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley Wednesday that he wanted to present evidence of Arbery’s past actions to help the jury determine what Arbery’s “intent and motive” was on the day of the shooting.
But prosecutor Linda Dunikoski insisted that Arbery’s past is irrelevant because the defendants lacked any knowledge of his run-ins with the law when they allegedly chased him down and shot him last February.
Bryan and the McMichaels face murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment charges for fatally shooting Arbery. They pleaded not guilty to federal hate crime and attempted kidnapping charges Tuesday.
Arbery, 25, was jogging through a neighborhood just outside Brunswick, Georgia when Travis and Greg McMichael began chasing him in a white pick-up truck. The two men later said they believed Arbery had committed a burglary in the area.
Defense attorneys have claimed that Travis McMichael was acting in self-defense when he shot Arbery three times at point-blank range with a shotgun, killing him in the street. Arbery was unarmed.
The three men were not arrested until three months later, after video of the shooting was leaked and went viral.
The defendants have argued that they were exercising Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law when they attempted to detain Arbery. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law repealing the statute Monday.
“They want to talk about Mr. Arbery’s reaction to Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael. It’s common sense: fight or flight. And what Mr. Ahmaud Arbery did was he fled because he was under no legal obligation whatsoever to stop and talk to strangers who were trying to hit him with their pick-up trucks and shoot him with their shotguns,” Dunikoski said.
“In a self-defense case, you can’t claim self-defense if you started it,” she said.
Attorneys for the defense have asked the judge to let them present evidence to the jury related to several incidents, including Arbery’s 2013 arrest and guilty plea to bringing a gun to a high school basketball game.
Former Glynn County Schools Police Chief Rodney Ellis testified Wednesday that Arbery ran from officers and stopped only after two officers pointed guns at him.
Two Glynn County police officers also gave testimony related to two incidents in 2017 in which Arbery was allegedly aggressive.
Officer Robert Mydell testified about Arbery’s December 2017 arrest and shoplifting conviction for trying to steal a TV from a Walmart. Mydell said Arbery was confrontational, used profanity and refused to sit on the ground when ordered.
Officer Michael Kanago also testified, telling the court that Arbery became agitated and used profanity when he was stopped while rapping along to music in his car at a park. Body camera footage of the stop showed Arbery asking why Kanago was harassing him.
Walmsley said he would not rule on the evidence Wednesday and asked both sides to submit written briefs within 20 to 40 days instead.
Sheffield also revealed Wednesday that Arbery had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and mood disorders, in 2018.
He argued that Arbery’s mental illness “contributed in a significant way to his actions on that day, including engaging in hand-to-hand combat with [Travis McMichael].” Sheffield said Arbery suffered from auditory hallucinations which told him to “rob and steal and…hurt others.”
Dunikoski said it was offensive to blame the shooting on Arbery’s mental health.
“He could’ve been a Rhodes Scholar. He could’ve been clucking his arms like a chicken running down the street. His mental health is absolutely irrelevant to the reasonableness of their actions,” she said.
Walmsley stopped arguments over whether Arbery’s medical records could be tendered into evidence, saying he needed more time to “think it through.”
“The way that this case has gone, [the records] will be everywhere. They’re part of the court’s record which means anybody can come in and look at the court’s record. And I’ve got a real problem with simply allowing that,” Walmsley said.
The hearing is scheduled to continue Thursday morning. Jury selection in the case will start on Oct. 18.