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Prosecutor says Arbery killers had long history of racist views

A federal prosecutor read racist texts and comments made by the three white men convicted of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder during opening statements in their federal hate crimes trial, telling jurors the 25-year-old Black man was targeted because of his race.

ATLANTA (CN) — The man convicted of murder for shooting Ahmaud Arbery has a history of viewing Black people as “something less than human,” a federal prosecutor told jurors Monday during opening statements in the hate crimes trial against all three men involved in Arbery’s death.

In text messages to friends and in social media posts, Travis McMichael referred to Black people as “animals, criminals, monkeys, sub-human savages,” attorney Barbara Bernstein of the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said.

McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and their neighbor Roddie Bryan have been charged with attempted kidnapping and using force or the threat of force to intimidate the 25-year-old jogger based on his race.

The McMichaels are also charged with firearm offenses for arming themselves with guns and chasing Arbery in their pickup truck after spotting him jogging through their coastal Georgia neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the chase in his truck and used his cellphone to film, capturing the moment Travis McMichael fired two fatal shotgun blasts at Arbery.

No arrests were made in the case until two months later, when the video of the shooting was leaked by Greg McMichael.

All three men were sentenced to life in prison in January after a state court jury convicted them of murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.

The fact that the chase and the shooting occurred is not in dispute, Bernstein told the jury panel Monday. Instead, the federal case will focus on whether the McMichaels and Bryan were motivated to pursue Arbery based on racial animus.

Apologizing to jurors for the racial epithets they would hear throughout the trial, Bernstein quoted from a text message Travis McMichael sent to a friend explaining why he “loved” his new job with a Navy contractor so much.

“He wrote, ‘Zero niggers work with me.’ He wrote, ‘They ruin everything. That’s why I love what I do now. Not a nigger in sight.’”

Bernstein also described McMichael’s response a month before the shooting to a friend who sent a video of a Black man lighting a firecracker in his own nostril.

“Travis wrote back, ‘Been cooler if it blew that fucking nigger’s head off.’”

Defense attorneys did not attempt to deny that their clients had made racist statements or expressed negative views of Black people. Instead, they argued the three men pursued Arbery based on their honest but incorrect belief that he had committed crimes in the neighborhood.

Amy Copeland, an attorney appointed to represent Travis McMichael, told the jury that she could not defend her client’s use of slurs.

“I can’t stand before you and say my client has never used the n-word, has never said anything derogatory about people of another race,” Copeland said.

She quickly pointed out, however, that, “No one is going to tell you that saying these things or expressing these opinions is a crime.”

As for the government’s arguments that the younger McMichael behaved like a vigilante when he chased Arbery, Copeland said Travis was simply “trying to be a good neighbor” and believed that Arbery had committed burglaries and trespassed in the neighborhood.

Although security cameras caught video of Arbery wandering around inside a nearby home under construction several times in the months before his death, no evidence has ever been presented in court that he stole anything.

Bernstein said Greg McMichael used racist language as well and described an incident in which he went on a rant about the 2015 death of civil rights leader Julian Bond.

The elder McMichael allegedly said, “I wish he’d been put in the ground years ago. He was nothing but trouble. Those Blacks are nothing but trouble.”

Although Greg McMichael used social media less frequently than his son, Bernstein said he posted memes supporting vigilantism.

Attorney A.J. Balbo, who represents the elder McMichael, called Arbery’s death “an American tragedy” but said the evidence will show the McMichaels chased Arbery only because they believed he had been trespassing.

Balbo said that a “terrible pattern” had emerged in the neighborhood: “There would be a trespassing. Before neighbors and police could get there, the trespasser would be gone.”

As for Bryan, Bernstein said he joined the chase based on an immediate assumption that a Black man, even one running with nothing in his hands, “had to be the bad guy, and that the white guys… had to be the good guys.”

She told jurors that Bryan learned his daughter was dating a Black man just four days before the shooting. His response, she said, illustrated his mindset the week of Arbery’s death.

“His reaction… was to write that his daughter ‘has her a nigger now,’” Bernstein said, adding that Bryan also called the boyfriend a “monkey.”

Bryan’s attorney, James Theodocian, told jurors that his client is not “obsessed with race” and does not “see the world through the prism of race.”

But Theodocian said Bryan made a “natural assumption” that the McMichaels were chasing Arbery because he had done something wrong.

“Roddie’s introduction to Ahmaud Arbery was being chased in broad daylight with people saying, ‘Stop. Stop him.’ He didn’t see a Black male just on the road. He saw a chase, a pursuit,” Theodocian said.

Theodocian said Bryan took video of the chase because he wanted to record Arbery’s face in case he got away before police arrived.

Bernstein also noted that none of the men tried to render aid or comfort to Arbery as he died in the street. Instead, Travis McMichael “was quick to blame the dead Black man for getting shot.” The prosecutor said the younger McMichael told police, “If he’d just stopped, this wouldn’t have happened.”

There was no mention on Monday of the widely circulated testimony by Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Richard Dial that Bryan told him Travis McMichael called Arbery a "fucking nigger" as he stood over the dying man's body.

Concluding her opening statements, Bernstein told the jury panel that if Arbery had been white, he would have ended his run and made it home in time for Sunday dinner.

“Instead, he ended up bleeding to death, scared and alone in the street. For no reason other than that these three defendants had made decisions about him based on the color of his skin,” she said.

U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, who is presiding over the case, has said she expects the trial to last between seven and 12 days.

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