Three Georgia men pleaded not guilty to federal hate crime charges Tuesday in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot while jogging near his home, according to online court documents.
Greg McMichael, a 65-year-old former police officer; Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael’s 35-year-old son; and William “Roddie” Bryan appeared in front of U.S. Magistrate Judge Benjamin Cheesbro for their first court appearance since they were indicted on the federal charges.
They are charged with violating Arbery’s civil rights and attempted kidnapping. The father and son were also charged with using firearms during the commissions of a crime.
Members of Arbery’s family thanked their supporters and the federal government outside the courthouse Tuesday.
“This is a very emotional day for the family,” family attorney S. Lee Merritt told reporters. “This is the first time that they’ve shared a courtroom with these three murderers.”
On Feb. 23, 2020, the McMichaels armed themselves, got into a truck and chased Arbery while he was running on a public street in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia, according to court documents. Bryan, their neighbor, joined the chase, used his truck to cut off Arbery and took video on his phone of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.
Arbery’s death, along with those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, who were killed by police, fueled months of racial justice protests around the country.
The McMichaels and Bryan, who are all white, were arrested last May — more than two months after the fatal shooting — following a storm of public outcry after video of Arbery’s death was made public. They were also charged with murder and aggravated assault in Georgia; they pleaded not guilty to those counts as well.
They did not face state hate crime charges because Georgia was one of the few states without hate crimes laws. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed legislation in June – weeks after Arbery was shot and killed – that imposes additional penalties for crimes motivated by bias.
On April 28, the Justice Department charged the trio for targeting and threatening Arbery because of his race.
More:Georgia governor signs hate crime law in wake of Ahmaud Arbery shooting
More:Ahmaud Arbery murder suspects charged with hate crimes by Justice Department
The indictment alleges the defendants “used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.” If convicted of interfering with Arbery’s rights, they could face a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Attorneys for Arbery’s family say he was the victim of racial profiling and have called the killing a lynching.
Defense attorneys for the McMichaels and Bryan insist their clients committed no crimes.
Gregory McMichael told police he and his son believed Arbery matched the description of a burglar caught on security camera during a recent break-in in the neighborhood. Glynn County police told USA TODAY they had no records of home break-ins or burglaries between Jan. 1 and Feb. 23 in that neighborhood. Local media reported one car burglary.
Surveillance video shows Arbery stopping at a house under construction before the McMichaels pursued him. However, the owner of the property said nothing was taken and video shows several people had entered the construction site over the course of several months.
Lawyer:Security video from construction site may show Ahmaud Arbery was getting water
In response to Arbery’s death, Kemp signed a bill Monday that says bystanders can no longer make an arrest in Georgia if a crime is committed in their presence.
Meanwhile this week, a Georgia judge will determine whether the trial jury in the state’s case can hear evidence of racist messages and social media posts made or shared by the defendants and evidence of incidents from Arbery’s past. Jury selection for the state case is set to begin Oct. 18.
Defense attorneys for the McMichaels want the jury to know about 10 incidents from Arbery’s past. The lawyers say those incidents support the argument that Arbery would “use running or jogging as cover to commit crimes” and the McMichaels had reason to suspect he was a burglar.
Prosecutors say Arbery’s past is irrelevant because none of the defendants knew Arbery or about the incidents before the shooting.
“The only purpose for placing the ‘other acts’ of Mr. Arbery before a jury is to smear the character of Mr. Arbery and suggest that his murder was deserved,” prosecutors wrote in a court filing.
Judge finds probable cause for charges:Georgia investigator alleges use of racial slur
Prosecutors have also asked the judge to let jurors see text messages and social media posts they say show a lack of “racial goodwill” by all three defendants.
Richard Dial, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation special agent and the lead investigator on the Arbery case, told investigators in June that Travis McMichael used a racial slur “numerous times” on social media and in messages and that Bryan had several messages on his phone concerning race that Dial called “very concerning.”
Dial also said McMichael called Arbery the same slur as he laid on the ground after the shooting and before police arrived. Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, said his client denies making the remark.
Contributing: Grace Hauck, USA TODAY; Nicquel Terry Ellis, The Associated Press