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Ahmaud Arbery killing: What we learned from latest court hearing

From left: Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, William "Roddie" Bryan Jr. and Ahmaud Arbery, layered over an image from the courtroom on June 4, 2020.
From left: Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, William "Roddie" Bryan Jr. and Ahmaud Arbery, layered over an image from the courtroom on June 4, 2020.(WRDW)
Published: Jun. 5, 2020 at 5:24 AM EDT
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Friday, June 5, 2020

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — In a hearing that revealed new information in the Ahmaud Arbery killing, a judge ruled the case can advance to the trial court.

Among the revelations

was the alleged use of a racial slur right after Arbery, 25, was shot and killed in a street.

Attorneys for Travis and Gregory McMichael, as well as William “Roddie” Bryan, appeared at the hearing. The McMichaels appeared virtually from jail.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Richard Dial testified Travis McMichael was heard saying a racist slur as he stood over Arbery, moments after fatally shooting him with a pump-action shotgun.

“Mr. Bryan said that after the shooting took place before police arrival, while Mr. Arbery was on the ground, that he heard Travis McMichael make the statement, ‘f - - - ing n - - - er,’” Dial testified.

The suspects are white and Arbery was African American.

Arbery -- who has family ties in the CSRA and is buried near Waynesboro -- was killed Feb. 23 after Travis McMichael, 34, and his father, Greg McMichael, 64, gave chase when they spotted him running in their neighborhood. They say they thought Arbery was a burglar. Bryan said he saw them driving by and joined the chase, Dial said. It wasn’t until May 7 that Travis and Gregory McMichael were charged.

Also revealed in the hearing:

• The investigator testified that police body camera footage showed a Confederate flag sticker on a toolbox in Travis McMichael’s truck and that investigators discovered at least two more racial slurs in messages on his phone.

• The McMichaels never called 911 before pursuing Arbery.

• Bryan jumped in with his own truck -- actually striking Arbery with the vehicle during the pursuit.

• Dial said that in Arbery's final moments, he was running for his life. He said the McMichaels and Bryan used their trucks to chase down and box in Arbery, who repeatedly reversed directions and ran into a ditch. “He ran till he couldn't run anymore, and it was turn his back to a man with a shotgun or fight with his bare hands. He chose to fight,” Dial testified.

• Travis McMichael got out of his truck and confronted Arbery, later telling police he shot Arbery in self-defense after Arbery refused his order to get on the ground, Dial said. He said a close examination of the video of the shooting shows the first shot was to Arbery's chest, the second was to his hand, and the third hit his chest again before he collapsed in the road.

• Bryan gave investigators the information about the racial slur roughly a week after the McMichaels' arrest, but there's no indication he told Glynn County investigators before that, Dial added.

What else happened at the hearing

Under questioning by Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, Dial said Travis McMichael told police he raised his shotgun at Arbery from roughly 90 feet away and told him to stop and get on the ground.

That’s when Arbery ran around the passenger side of Travis McMichael’s truck, and the two men met in front of it.

Dial said Travis McMichael, told police Arbery “squared up” like he was going to attack.

“There’s a statement that he might have had his hand on his shirt,” Dial said. “Travis McMichael said his adrenaline was pumping and it all happened very quickly.”

He said Travis McMichael then fired the first shot into Arbery’s chest.

Sheffield argued that the pursuit began with a legitimate concern about past crimes in the neighborhood that escalated right before the shooting.

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“Travis McMichael used self-defense when he was attacked by Mr. Arbery,” Sheffield said.

“I don't think it was self-defense by Mr. McMichael," Dial said. "I believe it was self-defense by Mr. Arbery.”

The testimony presented Thursday raises questions about the idea that the McMichaels and Bryan were legitimately carrying out a citizens' arrest of a suspected burglar. It also could factor into a federal investigation into whether hate crime charges are warranted.

Dial testified that Greg McMichael told police that “he didn’t know if Mr. Arbery had stolen anything or not, but he had a gut feeling” that Arbery had committed prior break-ins in the neighborhood.

In response to questioning from Bryan’s attorney Kevin Gough, Dial testified that he believes Bryan joined the chase because he saw a black man running down the street with a truck following and drew conclusions based on racial bias. There’s evidence of Bryan’s "racist attitudes in his communications,” Dial said, referring to comments found on his cellphone.

The investigator added that several residents of the subdivision where Arbery was killed told investigators they had seen him running in the neighborhood previously.

Dial said the three defendants are the only known witnesses to the shooting and investigators have found no other video of Arbery’s final moments other than what Bryan recorded.

Reaction from Arbery’s family

An Arbery family attorney, Lee Merritt, said the defendants being videoconferenced in made it a little easier for the family. However, the details really were tough to hear.

"He was afraid. The McMichaels put him in a position where I couldn’t protect him, and unfortunately he was not able to protect himself,” said Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones.

The family’s attorney responded to a question about how readily the GBI was to say it was a crime compared to the local law enforcement response.

“It shows the level of corruption in the local authorities and the prosecutorial pool that received and originally reviewed the case. It shows that those men and women who are responsible for covering up or disregarding this murder should also be criminally investigated and civilly investigated as a region,” Merrit said

The family is weighing filing a civil suit in Arbery’s death.

Merritt says they’ll meet with the FBI in the coming days about the status on the federal investigation into the handling of the case.

From reports by The Associated Press, WTOC and WRDW

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