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 authorities say was chased and shot while jogging.
Travis McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael, as well as a neighbour, William “Roddie” Bryan, entered their pleas before a U.S. magistrate judge.
U.S. Justice Department prosecutors said they plan to share the bulk of their evidence with defence attorneys within a week, and the rest over the next month, a sign they’re moving swiftly even with state murder charges still pending against the defendants. A Georgia judge has set a trial in the state’s case for October and will hear pretrial motions later this week.
“We know justice is closer,” Marcus Arbery Sr., the slain man’s father, told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Brunswick, about 110 kilometres 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 indictment charges that the McMichaels armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after he ran past their home on Feb. 23, 2020, and that 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 with violating Arbery’s civil rights as well as attempted kidnapping for allegedly 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” Arbery “because of [his] race and colour.” If convicted of interfering with Arbery’s rights, they could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Family members in court
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.
“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.”
Defence lawyers for the McMichaels and Bryan have insisted their clients 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 he 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 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.