The video of Ahmaud Arbery’s shotgun dead was a shocking piece of evidence that suddenly brought the black man’s murder into the national consciousness.
But the murder convictions of the three white men who chased him may have been confirmed to investigators by their own words on the day of the shooting.
Greg McMichael, who was in the bed of a pickup truck when his son killed Arbery, told police the black man was “trapped like a rat” and he said to Arbery, “Stop, or I’ll blow your head off!”
Such statements allowed prosecutors to give context to the short video that didn’t show the entire shooting and that lacked the five minutes the men were chasing Arbery.
“It’s those statements that mess up the defense more than the video. If they never spoke to the police and they said we saw him steal something off the property and run away, maybe the jury would have acquitted them,” said associate attorney Andrew Fleischman, who followed the trial from Atlanta.
WHAT THEY SAID:
The gunman, Travis McMichael, his father, Greg McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan all spoke at length and candid with Glynn County investigators just hours after Arbery was murdered in February 2020 in their Brunswick, Georgia neighborhood.
They told police they weren’t sure exactly what Arbery had done wrong, which would later be a major blow to their defense that they carried out a civilian arrest.
Civilian Arrest Act, largely repealed by lawmakers after Arbery’s death, requires that a person see or be immediately aware of a crime being committed, or have a reasonable suspicion that someone is on the run from a crime to justify the arrest of a citizen.
“I don’t think the man actually stole anything there, or that it was early in the process. But he keeps going back to this damn house time and time again,” said Greg McMichael, according to a transcript of the interview that Glynn County Police Department Sgt. Roderic Nohilly read in court.
Bryan was standing on his porch when he saw Arbery run past with the McMichaels truck right behind him. He told police he didn’t recognize any of them or what sparked the chase, but joined in after yelling, “Do you all have him?”
In an interview with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Bryan said he wanted to take a photo of Arbery to show the police, but was unable to point to any crimes Arbery had committed.
“I thought he’d done something wrong,” Bryan said. “I wasn’t sure.”
The statements allowed Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski to methodically separate the defense’s arguments.
“Nobody mentioned a citizen’s arrest. And I don’t mean using the magic words ‘citizen’s arrest’. I mean, no one is saying, ‘We saw the man break-in and we wanted to hold him down so we could hand him over to the police for committing this crime,’ Atlanta attorney Page Pate said.
That left the lawyers struggling for the men to explain their statements.
“Evidence suggests Roddie Bryan is legitimately struggling to find the right words,” Bryan’s attorney Kevin Gough said. told the jurors in his closing argument Monday.
Travis McMichael, testifying in his own defense, said he was in shock when he first spoke to police, calling the shooting the most traumatic event of his life.
Greg McMichael’s attorney suggested that he may never have yelled at Arbery, “Stop, or I’ll blow your head off,” as he told police, because the comment wasn’t recorded on the cell phone video of the shooting or the shooting. 911 Call Greg McMichael filed a police report. Both recordings only covered a small portion of the five-minute chase that ended in Arbery’s death.
“You only have a handful of defenses to deal with what is basically a confession,” Pate said.
Greg McMichael was a former investigator in the Glynn County District Attorney’s office and may have felt he could resolve issues among his acquaintances and friends.
It worked for a while. The men were charged for no more than two months — only after video of the shooting surfaced and the case was turned over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. State agents charged the men two days later.
“This is just a case of a client who talked himself out of trouble and those statements later turned out to get him in trouble again,” Fleischman said.
Phone records show that Greg McMichael called his former boss, District Attorney Jackie Johnson, just after the shooting. Johnson turned the case over to a prosecutor, who cited the law on the arrest of civilians by recommending not to press charges. A third prosecutor was reviewing the case when the video surfaced and handed it over to the state.
Johnson was charged on a felony charge of violating her oath of office and a misdemeanor count of obstructing the police for her role in the investigation. Authorities have released little information about Johnson’s actions, other than she never revealed that she asked the second prosecutor to advise police in the immediate aftermath of Arbery’s murder.
Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.