Accused Killers of Ahmaud Arbery Go on Trial in 2020 Shooting Death of Unarmed Black Georgia Jogger

Ahmaud Arberry was chased for more than four minutes by three white men in pickup trucks who allegedly believed he was a burglar

Ahmaud Arbery
Ahmaud Arbery.

One year after Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, was fatally shot while jogging through a neighborhood in Georgia, his mother still wrestled with the video of the shooting that ultimately led to murder charges against three white men.

"It replays in my mind each and every day," Wanda Cooper-Jones told the Today show in February.

That video — like the one that drove the prosecution's case in the trial last year of a police officer convicted of murdering George Floyd — will be a key piece of evidence as the trial of those accused in Arbery's death begins with jury selection on Monday.

Arbery, 25, was shot and killed on February 23, 2020, after being chased down a suburban street in Brunswick. Authorities allege that the suspects — Gregory McMichael, 67; his son Travis McMichael, 35; and a neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan, 52 — pursued and confronted Arbery with two firearms after they saw him running, and that Travis fatally shot him during a struggle over Travis' shotgun.

All three suspects have pleaded not guilty to multiple charges. The defense alleges the men believed Arbery matched the description of someone who reportedly burglarized a home construction site, and they were attempting a citizen's arrest when the scuffle broke out.

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Initially, prosecutors declined to bring charges. But that changed after the cellphone video recorded by Bryan became public more than two months later, sparking a national outcry.

gregory and travis mcmichael
Travis, at left, and Gregory McMichael.
William "Roddie" Bryan Jr.
William "Roddie" Bryan Jr.

Three weeks after Arbery's death, Breonna Taylor, 26, a Black emergency room technician, was killed on March 13, 2020, in her Louisville, Ky., apartment by police who served a "no-knock" warrant and fatally shot her after Taylor's boyfriend, who feared for his life, fired his own permitted weapon at them as they entered. And images of Floyd's murder on May 25, 2020, went viral after a bystander recorded video of a white Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, pressing his knee to the neck of the prone Black man for roughly nine minutes as Floyd suffocated while under arrest for a purchase with an allegedly counterfeit $20 bill.

The three incidents helped propel a summer-long national movement of protest against racial injustice and police brutality that linked the names of the victims together.

Prosecutor Indicted on Accusations She Mishandled Case

Yet the alleged effort by local authorities to diminish the tragedy of Arbery's killing began almost from the start, an attorney for his family told PEOPLE in 2020.

Arbery's mother was falsely told that her son was killed by a homeowner while committing a burglary, according to the attorney, S. Lee Merritt.

A district attorney who viewed the video of the Black jogger chased by the armed Greg and Travis McMichael in a pickup then wrote that Arbery "initiated the fight," concluding, "Arbery's mental health records & prior convictions help explain his apparent aggressive nature and his possible thought pattern to attack an armed man."

That same district attorney, George Barnhill, wrote in a separate analysis: "The family are not strangers to the local criminal justice system. From best we can tell, Ahmaud's older brother has gone to prison in the past ... . It also appears a cousin has been prosecuted ... ."

But none of that justified Arbery's shooting, Merritt said. "The root of Ahmaud's murder goes back to the criminalization of Blackness," he told PEOPLE at the time. "This was a lynching."

Another Georgia prosecutor, Jackie Johnson, the former district attorney of Glynn County, was indicted in September on accusations she obstructed police officers from arresting Travis McMichael and showed "favor" to Greg McMichael, who had previously worked in her office, according to an indictment against her. Johnson was the first of four prosecutors to be in charge of the case, which is now in the hands of a prosecutor from Cobb County.

Johnson is charged with violation of oath of public officer and obstruction of a law enforcement officer. PEOPLE's call Brian Steele, an attorney representing Johnson, was not immediately returned Thursday. It was not immediately clear if Johnson has entered a plea.

Suspect Allegedly Used Racial Slur After Shooting Arbery

A police report said that Gregory McMichael, a former investigator in the local county prosecutor's office, spotted Arbery at the construction site and believed him to be a burglar. Police say he alerted his son, and both grabbed firearms before giving chase in a pickup, followed by Bryan in his own pickup.

As Arbery attempted to outrun his pursuers, they blocked his escape route. The video then shows Arbery running toward Travis McMichael, who has gotten out of the truck, as the first shotgun blast is recorded.

Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) Special Agent Richard Dial testified during a preliminary hearing in June 2020 that Bryan told authorities Travis McMichael then referred to Arbery with a racial slur as he lay dying.

Arbery was shot three times and "died of multiple shotgun wounds sustained during a struggle for the shotgun," said an autopsy report obtained by PEOPLE. The report also revealed that Arbery sustained two close-range gunshot wounds in the chest, as well as a graze wound on his right wrist. The GBI review of Arbery's death — which was not requested until May 5, 2020, by District Attorney Tom Durden after two other district attorneys recused themselves from the case — listed his manner of death as homicide, and led to the arrests of the McMichaels two days later.

The video is "extremely upsetting," GBI Director Vic Reynolds said at a news conference announcing the arrests. "On a human level, it's troubling."

"I can't answer what another agency did or didn't see," he said in response to a question about the 10-week delay in arrests. "But I can tell you that based on our involvement in this case, and considering that we hit the ground running ... and within 36 hours had secured warrants for two individuals for felony murder, I think that speaks volumes."

The three men charged with Arbery's death also are now facing federal hate crime charges in the case -- specifically, one count each of interference with rights and one count each of attempted kidnapping, the U.S. Attorney's Office announced in a news release. Like the state prosecutors, the federal prosecutors allege that Bryan joined the McMichaels in chasing Arbery and using his truck to cut off Arbery's path.

In the state trial opening this week, all three are charged with malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to commit a felony.

An attorney for Travis McMichael, Jason V. Sheffield, told The New York Times that he would argue Travis felt he was "in fear of being shot himself" as Arbery attempted to wrestle away his shotgun.

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