Three Georgia men pleaded not guilty to federal hate crime charges Tuesday in the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot after being spotted running in the white defendants' neighborhood.
Travis McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael, as well as a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, entered their pleas before a U.S. magistrate judge.
Justice Department prosecutors said they plan to share the bulk of their evidence with defense attorneys within a week, and the rest in the next month, a sign they're moving swiftly even with state murder charges still pending against the same defendants. A Georgia judge has set a trial in the state's case for October and will hear pretrial motions later this week.
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“We know justice is closer,” Marcus Arbery Sr., the slain man’s father, told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Brunswick, about 70 miles (112 miles) south of Savannah. He said the Justice Department's decision to prosecute his son's death as a hate crime had been “a big relief.”
The McMichaels armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after he ran past their home on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.
On April 28, the Justice Department charged both McMichaels and Bryan, who are all white, with violating Arbery's civil rights as well as attempted kidnapping for using their trucks and guns to try to detain him. The McMichaels were also charged with using firearms in the commission of a crime.
The federal indictment says all three men illegally used force to “injure, intimidate and interfere with” the young Black man “because of Arbery's race and color.” If convicted of interfering with Arbery's rights, they could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Wearing white masks and orange jail uniforms, all three defendants confirmed their pleas to U.S. Magistrate Judge Benjamin Cheesbro.
It was the first time members of Arbery's family sat in the same courtroom as the defendants, who during prior court hearings appeared by video conference from jail because of coronavirus precautions.
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“There was a moment where I wanted to break down, but I remained strong,” said Thea Brooks, one of Arbery's aunts. "It’s hard being in a room with people that you know have taken your loved one from you.”
Defense attorneys for the McMichaels and Bryan have insisted they committed no crimes. Lawyers for the McMichaels have said they chased Arbery because they suspected he was a burglar who had been recorded on video inside a nearby home under construction. They say Travis McMichael was fearing for his life when he shot Arbery as they grappled over a shotgun.
Prosecutors say Arbery was merely out jogging and there's no evidence Arbery stole anything from the home.
All three defendants have been jailed without bond since their arrests on state murder charges a year ago. They initially remained free for more than two months after Arbery was killed, but were swiftly charged after Bryan's cellphone video became public and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police.
The state murder case was set to move forward Wednesday and Thursday, with Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley hearing 12 pretrial motions in Brunswick.
Walmsley must decide whether the trial jury should be allowed to hear unflattering evidence of Arbery's prior run-ins with law enforcement as well as racist text messages and social media posts made or shared by the men who chased and killed him.
Defense attorneys for the McMichaels want the jury to know about 10 incidents from Arbery's past, including that he was on probation at the time he was killed. Court records show Arbery had pleaded guilty to charges that he carried a gun onto a high school campus in 2013, a year after he graduated, as well as a shoplifting charge for stealing a TV from a Walmart store in 2017.
Prosecutors say Arbery's past is irrelevant considering none of the defendants knew him prior to the fatal chase.
“The only purpose for placing the 'other acts' of Mr. Arbery before a jury is to smear the character of Mr. Arbery and suggest that his murder was deserved,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
Prosecutors have asked the judge to allow jurors to see text messages and social media posts that they contend show a lack of “racial goodwill” by all three defendants. They include a text message exchange from 2019 in which Travis McMichael twice uses a racist slur for Black people.