The lead prosecutor in the trial of the three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery said in her opening statement on Friday that Mr. Arbery was plainly “under attack” by the defendants when they chased him in trucks through their neighborhood — a chase that ended with one of the defendants, Travis McMichael, fatally shooting Mr. Arbery with his pump-action shotgun.
The prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, said that the men had “assumed the worst” about Mr. Arbery but had no “immediate knowledge” of him committing a crime when they decided to chase him in their trucks through their neighborhood.
“A very wise person once said, ‘Don’t assume the worst of another person’s intentions until you actually know what’s going on with them,’ ” Ms. Dunikoski told the 12-person jury, of which 11 are white and one is Black. But, she said, “all three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions. Not on facts, not on evidence — on assumptions. And they made decisions in their driveways based on those assumptions that took a young man’s life. And that is why we’re here.”
Ms. Dunikoski walked the jurors through the details of the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020.
She said that Mr. Arbery, an avid runner, had gone into a house under construction in the Satilla Shores subdivision, outside of Brunswick, Ga., and noted that he had been recorded on video cameras inside the house numerous times before. But there was no evidence that he ever took anything.
The owner of the house, Larry English, had had some belongings stolen out of his boat, which was sometimes on the property. But Ms. Dunikoski said that Mr. English ended up suspecting a different man and woman — who were also captured on video — of those thefts.
The three defendants had been concerned about neighborhood break-ins. On Jan. 1, she noted, Travis McMichael’s handgun was stolen from his truck.
Ms. Dunikoski argued to the jury that Gregory McMichael, Travis’s father and a fellow defendant, had merely seen Mr. Arbery running down the street after leaving Mr. English’s house. When asked by police later if Mr. Arbery had broken into the house, Mr. McMichael said, “I don’t know.” He added, “My intention was to stop this guy so that he could be arrested or be identified at the very least.”
The prosecution’s assertion that none of the men had immediate knowledge that a crime was committed appears to be in anticipation of the likelihood that the defense will argue that the men were making a legal arrest under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, which was largely repealed by the state legislature after widespread outcry over Mr. Arbery’s killing. That law previously stated that a private person may arrest someone “if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”
Ms. Dunikoski also described in detail how the two McMichaels and the third defendant, their neighbor William Bryan, chased Mr. Arbery for five minutes as he ran through their neighborhood, trying to evade them — the McMichaels in one pickup truck and Mr. Bryan in another. She said that in the midst of the chase, Travis McMichael stopped and asked Mr. Arbery, “Where you running from? What are you doing?” Mr. Arbery ignored him.
At some point during the pursuit, she said, Gregory McMichael, who was armed with a handgun, said to Mr. Arbery, “Stop or I’ll blow your fucking head off,” language, she said, that indicated an intent to harm Mr. Arbery, not simply talk to him.
She said that Mr. Bryan tried to hit Mr. Arbery four times with his pickup truck, at one point forcing him into a ditch.
And Ms. Dunikoski played the video that Mr. Bryan recorded on his cellphone, showing the moments when the two trucks had pinned Mr. Arbery in. She said that Gregory McMichael later claimed that Mr. Arbery had been “trapped like a rat.”
Ms. Dunikoski said the video showed Travis McMichael pointing the shotgun at Mr. Arbery as he ran toward the McMichaels’ truck. She noted that Travis McMichael had stepped out of the truck in one lane of the two-lane street, by the driver’s side door, with the truck blocking the second lane. The video shows Mr. Arbery running to the passenger side of the truck in an attempt to evade him. The two men appear to meet head on in front of the truck.
“What did McMichael do with that shotgun?” Ms. Dunikoski said. “He stepped around that open door and moved toward Mr. Arbery. He’s got a shotgun and he’s moving toward him to intercept him.”
Several shots are fired as the men struggle. Mr. Arbery falls to the ground after the last.
Ms. Dunikoski said that in interviews with police, Travis McMichael said that Mr. Arbery attacked him and that he was acting in self-defense. But she also said that when police asked him if Mr. Arbery grabbed his shotgun, he said, “I want to say he did, but I honestly cannot remember.”
The prosecutor asked the jury to find the men guilty on all of the counts on which they were indicted — including malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.
Several lawyers will be at the center of the action as the trial over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery begins: defense attorneys for the three men accused in Mr. Arbery’s death, and the lead prosecutor in the case.
Gregory McMichael, 67; Travis McMichael, 35, his son; and their neighbor William Bryan, 52, are accused of murder. Here is a breakdown of the lawyers who will help jurors decide their fate.
FOR THE PROSECUTION
Linda Dunikoski, Cobb County’s senior assistant district attorney, was not the initial choice for lead prosecutor. Jackie Johnson, the former district attorney in Glynn County, Ga., recused herself, as did George E. Barnhill of the Waycross Judicial Circuit. A third prosecutor from a smaller county office was removed after the state attorney general determined he was not equipped to handle the sprawling case.
Ms. Dunikoski graduated from Indiana University in Bloomington and studied law at Georgia State University. She began working in 2002 for the district attorney’s office. Her tenure there included a major case for Cobb County: the 2016 trial of Justin Ross Harris, who was found guilty of murder in the death of his 22-month-old son, who died of heatstroke while strapped in a car seat for hours.
FOR THE DEFENSE
Laura and Franklin J. Hogue
Laura and Franklin J. Hogue, who are married, will represent the elder Mr. McMichael. Both criminal defense attorneys, they studied law at Mercer University in Macon, Ga. They are partners at a Macon-based firm that has handled several high-profile criminal cases in the state, including those involving Donnie Rowe and Ronnie Adrian Towns. Mr. Rowe, a prison inmate, was convicted of murdering two corrections officers. Mr. Towns was accused of killing an Atlanta-area married couple.
Robert G. Rubin and Jason Sheffield
Robert G. Rubin, the former public defender for Fulton County, Ga., will defend the younger Mr. McMichael. He started his private criminal-defense practice in 1991. He studied law at Emory University, where he is also an adjunct law professor. He worked on the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case, the longest criminal trial in state history.
Jason Sheffield, an Atlanta-based criminal defense attorney, will also represent the younger Mr. McMichael. He studied law at Georgia State University, and is an adjunct professor at Emory University’s School of Law. He is a partner at the Peter, Rubin, Sheffield & Hodges law firm.
Kevin Gough, who studied law at the University of Georgia, will represent Mr. Bryan. He worked as an assistant district attorney and as a public defender for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit. He now has his own practice in Brunswick.
Opening arguments in the trial over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery began on Friday morning in Brunswick, Ga., a community made uneasy this week by the selection of a nearly all-white jury to hear the case.
Three white men — Gregory McMichael, 65, a former police officer; Travis McMichael, his son, 35; and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — are accused of killing Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased through a suburban neighborhood before being fatally shot by one of his pursuers in February 2020 Each faces up to life in prison for his role in Mr. Arbery’s death.
In her opening statement, Linda Dunikoski, the lead prosecutor, stressed that none of the defendants were currently law enforcement officers and that all three had assumed the worst about Mr. Arbery.
“We are here because of assumptions and driveway decisions,” Ms. Dunikoski told the jury. “All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions — not on facts, not on evidence.”
After lunch, Robert G. Rubin, the lawyer for Travis McMichael took the stand, the first of three presentations expected from the defense.
Among those watching the proceedings in the courtroom were Wanda Cooper-Jones, Mr. Arbery’s mother; Marcus Arbery Sr., his father; and Leigh McMichael, Gregory McMichael’s wife.
After Mr. Arbury was fatally shot on Feb. 23, 2020, the defendants told authorities that they suspected that Mr. Arbery had committed a series of break-ins in their neighborhood. Their lawyers are expected to argue that they were carrying out a legal “citizen’s arrest” under a state statute that has since been largely repealed. They have pleaded not guilty to charges that include murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.
Ms. Dunikoski noted that on the day Mr. Arbery was killed, none of the defendants talked about the concept of a citizen’s arrest. “Not one single person used those words,” she said.
The jury, which is made up of residents from Glynn County, where more than a quarter of the population is Black, includes 11 white people and one Black person. Anxiety over the jury’s racial makeup was palpable among observers and participants during the more than two weeks that the jurors were being chosen.
Lawyers have said the trial could last a month. The extraordinarily long jury selection process, a grueling process that took two and a half week and included the seating of four alternate jurors, has already underscored the explosive nature of this case. That is particularly true in coastal Glynn County, where many of the 85,000 residents are connected by bonds of family, school or work, and where racial tension and harmony are deeply laced.
Inside the Glynn County Courthouse — a red brick building with imposing ionic columns fronting a park full of moss-covered oaks — lawyers spent days subjecting scores of potential jurors to intense rounds of questions about how much they knew about the case, whether they had formed opinions about the defendants’ guilt and their preferred news sources and social media networks.
During the selection process, Ms. Dunikoski said that she was hoping for jurors who were a “blank slate.” But the killing was one of the most notorious in South Georgia in decades, and many prospective jurors — the court system sent out 1,000 jury notices — said they had already formed opinions about it.
The lengthy process stood in stark contrast to the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, an 18-year-old who is now on trial in Wisconsin for the deaths of two men and the wounding of another in the aftermath of protests in August 2020 over a police shooting. It took one day to seat a jury for that trial.
The indictment handed up by the grand jury in Glynn County lists nine criminal counts against each of the three defendants in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. For each count, they are charged individually and as “parties concerned in the commission of a crime.”
Taken together, the charges provide a number of different ways that the defendants, Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William Bryan, could wind up facing life in prison if they are convicted. All have pleaded not guilty.
Here are the charges in the order listed in the indictment:
This crime is defined in Georgia law as causing a person’s death with deliberate intention, without considerable provocation, and “where all the circumstances of the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.” It is punishable by death, or by life imprisonment with or without possibility of parole.
Counts 2, 3, 4 AND 5
This charge applies when a death is caused in the course of committing another felony, “irrespective of malice” — in other words, whether or not the killing was intentional and unprovoked.
The other felonies in this case are listed in Counts 6 through 9 of the indictment; one count of felony murder is linked to each. If prosecutors prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendants committed one or more of those crimes and also caused Mr. Arbery’s death in the process, the basis would be laid for a conviction for felony murder.
Like malice murder, felony murder is punishable by death, or by life imprisonment with or without possibility of parole.
One way Georgia law defines this crime is as an assault using a deadly weapon. This count charges the three men with attacking Mr. Arbery with a 12-gauge shotgun. It is punishable by imprisonment of one to 20 years.
Another way Georgia law defines this crime is as an assault using “any object, device, or instrument which, when used offensively against a person, is likely to or actually does result in serious bodily injury.” This count charges the defendants with using two pickup trucks to assault Mr. Arbery. It is punishable by imprisonment of one to 20 years.
This charge applies when a person without legal authority “arrests, confines, or detains” another person “in violation of the personal liberty” of that person. Specifically, the defendants are charged with using their pickup trucks to chase, confine and detain Mr. Arbery “without legal authority.”
False imprisonment is punishable by one to 10 years in prison.
Criminal attempt to commit a felony
Georgia law defines criminal attempt as performing “any act which constitutes a substantial step” toward the intentional commission of a crime — in this case, the false imprisonment charged in Count 8. A defendant can be convicted either of completing a particular crime or of attempting it, but not both.
Because false imprisonment is a felony, attempting it is also a felony, punishable by half the attempted crime’s maximum sentence: in this case, one to five years in prison.
Lawyers for the three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery are expected to argue that when Mr. Arbery was killed, the men were trying to make a citizen’s arrest permitted under state law.
The law in question had existed in Georgia since 1863 and was partly repealed after Mr. Arbery was killed. It allowed residents to arrest each other if they had reasonable suspicion that someone had committed a felony and the police were not present.
The defendants have said they thought Mr. Arbery was guilty of burglaries in the area when they chased him. No evidence has been produced to show that to be true.
The jury will have to consider if the men reasonably suspected that Mr. Arbery had committed a felony.
These kinds of laws exist in many states, but they are not uniform. Similar to “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws that allow people to use force to protect themselves or their homes, citizen’s arrest laws have come to national attention over the years. Critics argue that they enable people to act out of pre-existing biases and help foment environments where extrajudicial killings happen.
“This is based on racism,” said Ira P. Robbins, a law professor at American University who wrote an academic paper on the issue. “You look at the Georgia law, for example. This is a law that was used for white people to help catch escaping slaves. There is a close connection between citizen’s arrest laws in the South and lynchings.”
Among the criticisms of these kinds of laws is the belief that ordinary citizens are not well-versed in the complexities of the law when they take things into their own hands. “It’s scary because it allows for vigilante injustice,” Mr. Robbins said.
Georgia lawmakers partly dismantled the citizen’s arrest law last spring in response to Mr. Arbery’s killing, repealing the portion of the law that allowed a private person to arrest someone if that person witnessed — or was told about — a crime, or if someone suspected of committing a felony was trying to escape. The legislation carved out some exceptions for business owners, who can detain people on “reasonable grounds” if they are suspected of shoplifting or other thefts. Other exceptions apply to licensed private detectives and security guards.
Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, called the former statute “an antiquated law that is ripe for abuse.”
The final minutes of Ahmaud Arbery’s life were captured in a cellphone video taken by one of three men now accused of killing him last year while he was on a jog in a suburban Brunswick, Ga., neighborhood.
The video clip is about 30 seconds long and shows Mr. Arbery, 25, running along a two-lane road on Feb. 23, 2020, when he is confronted by Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael, armed and in a white pickup truck. They would later tell police that they suspected Mr. Arbery of neighborhood break-ins.
In the video, Mr. Arbery dashes around their truck and disappears from view. Then there is muffled shouting, followed by Mr. Arbery reappearing in the frame. He and Travis McMichael scuffle over Travis’s shotgun. Then, the sound of the weapon firing pierces the air. A second shot is heard as the two are out of view. Next comes the third and final blast. Mr. Arbery staggers a few steps forward then falls into the street.
The video, taken by William “Roddie” Bryan, a third man who joined the McMichaels in the chase, became public on May 5, 2020, the same day that officials announced the case would be presented to a grand jury. Two days later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations secured arrest warrants for the McMichaels.
The video, which captures a large part of the fatal encounter, helped shape the broad — and divergent — understanding of what happened that Sunday afternoon in the Satilla Shores neighborhood. Lawyers on both sides say the clip bolsters their opposing claims of self-defense, and it played a part in the opening arguments of the murder trial of the two McMichaels and Mr. Bryan.
After the explosive footage emerged, it went viral, driving national and international interest and becoming part of a collection of videos that have served as critical evidence in police or vigilante violence against African Americans — and that often have challenged the official narrative.
Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, an online racial justice organization, said when the public sees such incidents with their own eyes, it helps to form their “understanding of real-world harms” and to strengthen the demands of civil rights movements.
One of the first examples of violence that was captured on video and seen widely was in the case of Rodney King, a motorist who was beaten by four Los Angeles police officers after a high-speed chase in 1991. A man used a Sony video camera to record the beating from his nearby apartment balcony. The video showed officers striking Mr. King with batons more than 50 times and forced a national conversation about race and police brutality.
In 2015, cellphone video taken by a bystander led to murder charges being filed against a North Charleston, S.C., police officer for shooting Walter Scott in the back as he fled from what had started as a traffic stop over a broken taillight.
Five years later, on May 25, 2020, a teenager filmed the murder of George Floyd in the street as a white Minneapolis police officer pinned him to the ground with his knee.
The graphic documentation of Mr. Floyd’s and Mr. Arbery’s deaths, along with the killing of Breonna Taylor (hers was not recorded with a cellphone), led to demonstrations across the country over racial injustice and policing.
A group of clergy members gathered outside the Glynn County Superior Court in Brunswick, Ga., on Friday morning, urging the community to remain peaceful and united despite their unhappiness that a nearly all-white jury had been seated in the trial of the white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man.
“We want to acknowledge that we hear and that we see your disappointment with some of the discoveries in the process of justice that have taken place,” said John Davis Perry II, a local minister. “Despite all of those disappointments, as faith leaders we stand together declaring to not forget that we serve a God who is not asleep.”
He added: “We want to encourage you to keep the faith and to continue to walk in the spirit of unity because God has promised that he will be with us through the process.”
Mr. Arbery’s aunt, Thea Brooks, said that having clergy members present had brought a measure of peace to the Arbery family and the Brunswick community.
Ms. Brooks said she anticipated that having to see the video of Mr. Arbery’s killing, which occurred on Feb. 23, 2020, would be especially difficult for her family. Mr. Arbery’s mother, who is in the courtroom, had not yet seen the video, she said.
But Ms. Brooks said she was ready for the trial to begin.
“It’s been almost two years that we’ve been here, we’ve been having to watch the video, hear the motions, go through preliminary hearings, in and out of court for motions and that takes a toll on you,” she said. “Now that we’re here, we just want this to be a smooth situation, get it done, get it over with, get justice served so we can move on and close this chapter of our lives.”
Even as he approved the selection of a nearly all-white jury this week to hear the murder case against three white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, the presiding judge declared that there was an appearance of “intentional discrimination” at play.
But Judge Timothy R. Walmsley of Glynn County Superior Court also said that defense lawyers had presented legitimate reasons unrelated to race to justify unseating eight Black potential jurors. And that, he said, was enough for him to reject the prosecution’s effort to reseat them.
What may have seemed like convoluted logic to non-lawyers was actually the judge’s scrupulous adherence to a 35-year-old Supreme Court decision that was meant to remove racial bias from the jury selection process — but has come to be considered a failure by many legal scholars.
The guidelines established by that ruling were central to the intense legal fight that erupted in court late Wednesday over the racial composition of the jury in the trial of the three defendants. The argument raised fundamental questions about what it means to be a fair and impartial juror, particularly in a high-profile trial unfolding in a small, interconnected community where nearly everyone has opinions about the case.
Defense lawyers told Judge Walmsley there were important, race-neutral reasons to unseat several Black candidates for the jury. One man, they said, had played high school football with Mr. Arbery. Another told lawyers that “this whole case is about racism.”
But the fact that the jury will be composed of 11 white people and one Black person in a Deep South trial over the killing of a Black man has profoundly dismayed some local residents who already had concerns about whether the trial will be fair.
“This jury is like a black eye to those of us who have been here for generations, whose ancestors labored and toiled and set a foundation for this community,” said Delores Polite, a community activist and distant relative of Mr. Arbery, who was fatally shot last year after being chased by three men who suspected him of a series of break-ins.
More broadly, the racially lopsided jury, in a county that is about 27 percent Black and 64 percent white, underscores the enduring challenges that American courts face in applying what seems to be a simple constitutional principle: that equal justice “requires a criminal trial free of racial discrimination in the jury selection process,” as Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh put it in a ruling from 2019.
Judge Timothy R. Walmsley, who is presiding over the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial, ruled on a number of legal motions ahead of opening statements, including allowing into evidence video images from the body camera of a responding police officer who hovered over Mr. Arbery after he was shot.
Judge Walmsley also ruled against the defense’s request to bring a “use of force” expert into trial, and refused to allow into evidence a toxicology report showing that Mr. Arbery had THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in his system when he died.
At one point, one of the lawyers representing Travis McMichael asked that certain portions of the body camera video not be played, because some of its content is inflammatory. The lawyer, Jason Sheffield, argued that the prosecution should use evidence “that is not going to incite the jury in a way.”
“I am asking the court to engage in a balancing test over whether or not that particular portion of the video needs to be played,” Mr. Sheffield said, bringing up photographs and testimony from the medical examiner and other witnesses that could also be used as evidence.
The lead prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, argued in favor of using the body-cam video. “This is real, and to tell the jury ‘Oh, we’re not going to show you what really the results of pointing a shotgun at someone is,” she said, then interrupted herself to recount a sequence of events. “Travis McMichael left his house with a shotgun. Then he got out of his car, with the shotgun, and pointed it at this young man. And then he shot him with it.”
Judge Walmsley also denied a defense request to keep a photograph of Mr. Arbery, in a ball cap and polo shirt, from appearing in court.
“If there are more recent in-life photographs, then what would be the point of presenting one nine years ago?” argued Kevin Gough, a lawyer for William Bryan. “Other than to try to suggest to the jury that he was a jogger that day because he wears athletic clothing and a ball cap?”
After some back-and-forth with the defense over legal precedent, Judge Walmsley ruled, saying, “The court will permit the state’s use of that photograph that was described.”
On Friday morning, before the jury was seated, Judge Walmsley briefly ruled on two other motions in favor of the prosecution. One ruling denied the defense’s motion to block jurors from knowing that Travis McMichael’s pickup truck had a vanity decorative license plate with the old Georgia state flag on it. This flag incorporates in its design the Confederate battle flag.
Defense attorneys feared that prosecutors would bring up the flag — often interpreted as a symbol of racism — to argue that Mr. Arbery, who was being chased by Travis McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael, in the truck, would have seen the vanity plate and feared for his safety.
Judge Walmsley also granted prosecutors’ motion to prevent jurors from knowing that Mr. Arbery was on probation on the afternoon Feb. 23, 2020, when the three men chased him through their subdivision.