Were Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers racially motivated? U.S. federal trial will decide

Georgia jury reaches a guilty verdict in trial over Ahmaud Arbery killing
People react outside the Glynn County Courthouse after the jury reached a guilty verdict in the trial of William “Roddie” Bryan, Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael.
REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Jonathan Allen and Rich McKay

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – The three white men found guilty on Wednesday of murdering Ahmaud Arbery as he ran through their Georgia neighborhood still face another reckoning: a federal trial in February that charges the men with targeting Arbery because he was Black.

It was a question that was only glancingly discussed in the state trial of Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, at least when the jury was in the courtroom.

Benjamin Crump, a civil rights lawyer representing the Arbery family, said the federal trial represented a final opportunity to get to the “crux” of what he called a lynching.

“This was predicated on the color of Ahmaud Arbery’s skin,” he said outside the courtroom before the verdict was read in Glynn County Superior Court in Brunswick.

The courthouse stands just a few miles from where the three men chased Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020 and killed him with a shotgun. The men face life in prison at sentencing for the state murder conviction.

The family hopes that evidence of racist language allegedly used by Travis McMichael, none of which was shown to the Glynn County jury, will finally be considered by the justice system, Crump said.

In pre-trial motions, state prosecutors told the court that they had evidence of “racial animus” motivating the defendants. At a bond hearing, they said Travis McMichael, 35, had used racial slurs on social media and in a text message.

At a pre-trial hearing, an investigator recounted Bryan telling him he heard McMichael used a slur as he stood over Arbery’s body, although McMichael’s lawyers raised doubts about Bryan’s reliability.

Prosecutors also decided against showing the jury the vanity license plate the younger McMichael affixed to his pickup truck in 2020. The plate includes the old Georgia state flag, which prominently incorporates the Confederate battle flag.

Americans are divided over whether such symbols of those who fought against the abolition of slavery are a display of Southern pride or of white supremacy.

But none of that emerged in the trial’s two weeks of testimony, even as race shaped public perception of the case, fueled in part by the repeated unsuccessful efforts of Kevin Gough, Bryan’s attorney, to get Black pastors banned from the courtroom.


At least some of this evidence, however, may feature in the federal trial.

“You better believe that a federal judge is going to be willing to hear evidence of racial animus, including specific text messages, when racial animus is a key element of the charge,” said Ayesha Bell Hardaway, a director of Case Western Reserve University’s Social Justice Institute.

The federal indictment charges the three men with hate crimes, saying they infringed Arbery’s civil rights by chasing and killing him because he was Black, among other charges. It does not show what evidence prosecutors might present to convince a jury that racism played a role.

The U.S. Department of Justice said in a statement that there may be some overlap in witnesses between the two cases but they were otherwise independent of each other.

The lawyers representing the three men in the federal trial either declined or did not respond to requests to comment.

There was a mix of reasons that the state prosecutors from the Cobb County district attorney’s office ended up not showing the “racial animus” evidence to the jury.

In one of its pre-trial motions, the prosecutors wrote they had made a “strategic decision” to not introduce some of the communications the defendants had with others that they indicated included racist language.

Some legal observers noted that Georgia did not have a hate crime statute in place at the time of the crime. Given that none of the charges hinged on proving a racist motivation, prosecutors may have decided it was simpler not to try, especially after defense lawyers succeeded in striking all but one Black person from the jury.

“The prosecution in that community is not going to alienate that nearly all-white jury,” Hardaway said. Knowing the federal trial was still to come may have given state prosecutors a “level of comfort in terms of this isn’t a one-shot deal,” she said.