Men who killed Arbery may have been doomed by their own words
One defendant told police Arbery ”was trapped like a rat” and that he told Arbery: “Stop, or I’ll blow your f---ing head off!” Such statements allowed prosecutors to give context to the short video that didn’t show the entire shooting.
The video of Ahmaud Arbery’s shotgun death was a shocking piece of evidence that suddenly brought the Black man’s killing into the national consciousness.
But the murder convictions of the three white men who chased him may have been secured by their own words to investigators 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 also that he had told Arbery: “Stop, or I’ll blow your f---ing head off!”
Statements like that allowed prosecutors to give context to the short video that didn’t show the entire shooting and had little of the five minutes that the men chased Arbery.
“It’s those statements that screwed the defense more than the video. If they had never talked to police and they said we saw him taking something from the property and running — there’s an OK shot the jury might have acquitted them,” said appellate attorney Andrew Fleischman, who followed the trial from Atlanta.
What they said:
The shooter, Travis McMichael, his dad, Greg McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan all spoke extensively and candidly with Glynn County investigators just hours after Arbery was killed in their Brunswick, Georgia, neighborhood in February 2020.
They told police they weren’t sure exactly what Arbery had done wrong, which would later be a big blow to their defense that they were making a citizen’s arrest.
The citizen’s arrest law, repealed by lawmakers after Arbery’s death, requires a person must see or have immediate knowledge of a crime being committed or have reasonable suspicion that someone is fleeing a felony in order to justify a citizen’s arrest.
“I don’t think the guy has actually stolen anything out of there, or if he did it was early in the process. But he keeps going back over and over again to this damn house,” Greg McMichael said, according to a transcript of the interview that Glynn County police Sgt. Roderic Nohilly read in court.
Bryan was on his front porch when he saw Arbery run past with the McMichaels’ truck close behind. He told police he didn’t recognize any of them, or know what prompted the chase, but still joined in after calling out: “Y’all got him?”
In an interview with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Bryan said he wanted to take a photo of Arbery to show police, but couldn’t point to any crimes Arbery had committed.
“I figured he had done something wrong,” Bryan said. “I didn’t know for sure.”
The statements allowed prosecutor Linda Dunikoski to methodically pick apart the defense’s arguments.
“Nobody was talking about a citizen’s arrest. And I don’t mean using the magic words ‘citizen’s arrest.’ I mean no one’s saying, ‘We saw the guy commit a burglary and we were going to hold on to him so we could turn him over to police because he committed this crime,’” Atlanta defense attorney Page Pate said.
That left the attorneys for the men to struggle to explain away their statements.
“The evidence suggests that Roddie Bryan legitimately struggles to find the right words,” Bryan’s lawyer, Kevin Gough, told 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 lawyer suggested maybe he never shouted at Arbery: “Stop, or I’ll blow your f---ing head off” like he told police because the remark wasn’t recorded on the cellphone video of the shooting or the 911 call Greg McMichael made to police. Both of those recordings covered only a small part 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,” Page said.
Greg McMichael was a former investigator in the Glynn County district attorney’s office and may have felt like he could navigate through trouble among his acquaintances and friends.
It worked for a while. The men weren’t charged for more than two months — and then, only after the 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 put him back into it,” Fleischman said.
Phone records show Greg McMichael called his former boss, District Attorney Jackie Johnson, just after the shooting. Johnson handed off the case to an out-of-town prosecutor, who cited the citizen’s arrest law in recommending no charges. A third prosecutor was reviewing the case when the video surfaced and handed it off to the state.
Johnson was indicted on a felony charge of violating her oath of office and a misdemeanor count of obstructing police for her role in the investigation. Authorities have released little information on Johnson’s actions other than to say she never disclosed that she asked the second prosecutor to advise police in the immediate aftermath of Arbery’s killing.
Jeffrey Collins contributed to this report.