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Opening statements have begun in the federal trial of Ahmaud Arbery's killers

This combo of booking photos provided by the Glynn County, Ga., Detention Center, shows, from left, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan Jr.
This combo of booking photos provided by the Glynn County, Ga., Detention Center, shows, from left, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan Jr.

Updated February 14, 2022 at 1:39 PM ET

Opening arguments have begun in the federal hate crimes trial of the three Georgia men charged in connection with the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black jogger whose 2020 shooting fueled protests and calls for racial justice.

The Justice Department has charged Travis McMichael, his father, Greg McMichael, and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan with hate crimes and attempted kidnapping of the 25-year-old. All three defendants are white, while Arbery was Black.

The federal proceeding, which will examine whether race was a factor in the killing, begins one month after the three men were sentenced to life in prison in a separate murder trial in Georgia state court. A jury there found the trio guilty of felony murder and other charges in connection with Arbery's death.

Prosecutors in the federal trial are expected to present evidence of prior racial animus by the defendants through language gleaned from their cell phones and social media posts.

Earlier on Monday, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood seated a jury of 12 people and four alternates — down from a pool of about 1,000 potential jurors who were called last week.

The court said eight of the jurors are white, three are Black and one is Hispanic. Of the four alternate jurors, the court identified three as white and one as Pacific Islander. The jury in the state murder trial was almost entirely white, with just one Black juror.

Outside the federal courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., Arbery's father Marcus said he was "looking forward to a second victory," according to Georgia Public Broadcasting's Benjamin Payne.

Wood said she expects the federal trial to last seven to 12 days.

How the federal and state cases differ

The federal trial focuses on whether the killing was racially motivated and whether the defendants violated Arbery's civil rights. The state case did not address whether race was a factor.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who used to lead the civil rights division at the Justice Department, says that historically, federal prosecutions like this were a backstop — a way to seek justice if a state or local prosecutor did not go after such crimes. Today, though, he says it's more about taking a national stand against racist behavior.

"In the most egregious examples, even if there has been a conviction in a state court, there's a national interest in there being federal consequences. And I think this is one of those cases," Patrick told NPR.

Two years ago, Georgia did not have a state hate crimes law that would have applied here. The public outcry over Arbery's murder changed that.

People in Brunswick say it will be hard to rehash the tragedy in court again but believe it has the potential to move the country forward in terms of racial justice.

"I'll be so glad when we get to the end of this. How, how much longer? I'm certain that the family feels that way. I'm certain that our community feels that way. And at the same time, it's something that is being used to produce better," said Pastor John Perry of Mount Sinai Missionary Baptist Church, a former president of the local NAACP.

Perry is part of group of clergy who plan to have a presence at the federal courthouse in support of Arbery's family.

What happened the day Arbery was killed

Travis McMichael, who testified in his own defense during the state trial, described the Feb. 23, 2020, confrontation in detail. He said he and his father chased Arbery in their pickup truck, believing that he might be the person responsible for a recent string of break-ins in their Satilla Shores neighborhood. Bryan joined the pursuit of Arbery.

At one point, Travis McMichael and Arbery got into a fight, and McMichael fired his shotgun at Arbery, killing him.

Arbery's family members called the killing, which was captured on video by Bryan and later leaked to the public, a "modern-day lynching."

Why the federal plea deal fell apart

Travis and Greg McMichael were planning to plead guilty to the federal charges, but they withdrew their pleas after Wood rejected the plea agreement presented by prosecutors because of objections from Arbery's family.

"The Justice Department takes seriously its obligation to confer with the Arbery family and their lawyers both pursuant to the Crime Victim Rights Act and out of respect for the victim," Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement.

"Before signing the proposed agreement reflecting the defendants' confessions to federal hate crimes charges, the Civil Rights Division consulted with the victims' attorneys. The Justice Department entered the plea agreement only after the victims' attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it," she added.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 7, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood as just U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey.
Joe Hernandez
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.