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Trial of men charged with Ahmaud Arbery’s death will measure where we stand

Now on its fifth prosecutor, the case finally will be heard by a jury

Brace yourself for another moment of reckoning on America’s potholed road to racial justice.

Jury selection begins Monday in the trial of three white men charged with killing Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was jogging through a neighborhood in Glynn County, Georgia. Gregory McMichael, his son Travis and their neighbor William Bryan face life in prison without parole if convicted of murder, false imprisonment and other charges. They also are charged with federal hate crimes in a separate case.

Arbery was killed on Feb. 23, 2020. It took 74 days and the release of a video of Arbery being shotgunned in the street for the McMichaels to be charged. Then came the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and protests over the police killing of Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky. Exacerbated by a pandemic that initially killed a disproportionate number of Black and brown people, the summer of 2020 was racked by the largest protests for racial justice in American history.

A young girl looks at a memorial for Ahmaud Arbery near where he was shot and killed on May 8, 2020, in Brunswick, Georgia.

Sean Rayford/Getty Images

Things feel different now. Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, is in prison. The pandemic lockdowns are over. Systemic racism is finally on the agenda, with institutions large and small considering their roles in perpetuating it.

Georgia passed a hate crimes law and repealed its “citizen’s arrest” statute as a result of Arbery’s death. But progress comes in fits and starts. Amid the predictable national backlash to recent Black activism, this trial will be one measurement of where we really stand.

“I pray that this case, and the way it’s been handled thus far, and its outcome, will make a difference for not only how people see the criminal justice system, but truly how the criminal justice system operates regarding all people in all communities,” said former Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes, who was appointed to prosecute the case and then departed after losing an election. “There was definitely a failure here, but the failure does not have to be the continuing story.”

Holmes said that current prosecutors are working to ensure that “Ahmaud’s death leads to positive change. From a number of different spectrums, not just the criminal justice system, but just in terms of how communities see young Black men, how communities love all people and look to stand up for the people next to them.”

Gregory McMichael’s mug shot after he was arrested in connection with the killing of Ahmaud Arbery on May 7, 2020, in Brunswick, Georgia.

Glynn County Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images

Arbery lived a short jog from the McMichaels’ neighborhood of Satilla Shores, outside Brunswick, Georgia. The former high school football player was exercising on a Sunday afternoon when McMichael, a 64-year-old retired police officer, saw him run by, according to a police report.

A security camera showed Arbery stopping briefly inside a nearby house that was under construction. The McMichaels say they thought Arbery was responsible for recent burglaries in their neighborhood. They grabbed their guns, chased him in Travis’ McMichael’s pickup truck and, along with Bryan, who was driving another pickup, tried to cut him off. Arbery was unarmed as he tried to dodge their vehicles. He resisted their demands to stop, then struggled with 34-year-old Travis McMichael, who then killed him with two shotgun blasts to the chest.

Travis stood over Arbery’s dying body and called him a “f—ing n—–,” a state investigator testified.

The three men are claiming self-defense: Their lawyers say they believed Arbery was a criminal and they had the right to detain him under a Civil War-era law. They say Arbery attacked them, so Travis McMichael was legally allowed to kill him.

This argument is not much different from the justification used by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in 2012, who followed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida, then fatally shot him during a struggle. Zimmerman, too, was not arrested until national attention focused on the case. He was acquitted, and Black Lives Matter was born.

Travis McMichael’s mug shot on May 7, 2020. Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory, and their neighbor William Bryan are claiming self-defense.

Glynn County Sheriff’s Office via Getty Images

In Arbery’s case, the first local prosecutor, Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, did not file charges, then recused herself from the case because McMichael had worked as an investigator for her office. Johnson was recently charged with violating her oath of office and obstructing a police officer “by directing that Travis McMichael should not be placed under arrest” and “showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation,” according to the indictment. She faces up to five years in prison if convicted. The next prosecutor was George Barnhill, the district attorney in nearby Waycross, Georgia. He wrote a letter to Glynn County police saying the McMichaels should not be arrested because they didn’t break any laws. He later recused himself after Arbery’s mother cited a conflict of interest because Barnhill’s son worked for Johnson and with the elder McMichael.

By then, Arbery’s death was national news. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case, and the state attorney general appointed another prosecutor, Atlantic Judicial Circuit District Attorney Tom Durden. That’s when the video filmed by Bryan hit the internet, showing the final moments of Arbery’s life. Durden immediately arrested the McMichaels and they were jailed without bond.

“I don’t believe it was self-defense by Mr. McMichael. I believe it was self-defense by Mr. Arbery,” an investigator testified. “I believe Mr. Arbery was being pursued, and he ran until he couldn’t run anymore. And it was: turn his back to a man with a shotgun, or fight with his bare hands against a man with a shotgun, and he chose to fight.”

William Bryan was jailed on May 21, 2020, on charges of felony murder and attempted false imprisonment.

Glynn County Sheriff’s Office via AP

Several weeks after taking over the case, Durden said it had become too big for his office to handle. Holmes, the first Black district attorney in Cobb County, an Atlanta suburb 300 miles from Brunswick, was appointed as the fourth prosecutor on the case. The fifth and current prosecutor is Flynn Broady, a Democrat who defeated the Republican Holmes in the November 2020 election.

The case is being tried before Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley. He has ruled that Arbery’s mental health records and previous arrests — for shoplifting in 2017 and taking a handgun into a school gym in 2013 — cannot be used as evidence at the trial. Walmsley’s ruling said the McMichaels had no knowledge of Arbery’s history when they chased him, and “the character of the victim is neither relevant nor admissible in a murder trial.” The judge was still considering whether to allow evidence that Travis McMichael’s truck had a vanity plate featuring an old Georgia state flag that includes the Confederate Stars and Bars emblem.

In an interview, Holmes declined to comment on details of the prosecution or what it would take to secure convictions. “I would never want to say anything that’s going to impact jury selection or the case moving forward,” she said.

“I may not be in that office and I may not be prosecuting the case,” Holmes said, “but I am just as invested as an individual, as a mother, as a person who built a relationship and continue to build a relationship with Ahmaud’s mom, that this go right.

“I do think this will be one of those bookend situations that the result at the end of the case will allow people to breathe — but not uninhibited. If we breathe and move on, then we’re in a place where we might see something like that again. We’ve got to take that breath and continue with what’s been started and figure out how do we make it better.”

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.