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Opening statements begin in the murder trial of 3 men accused in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery

"They made decisions in their driveways based on their assumptions that took a young man's life, and that's why we are here," prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said.
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A nearly all-white jury heard opening statements Friday in the murder trial of three white men charged in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging in their neighborhood in February 2020.

Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski sought to portray the defendants as having made a snap judgement about Arbery after seeing him in their neighborhood, going to confront him with guns but without any knowledge of who he was.

But defense attorneys said their clients, at the time, had reason to believe Arbery had previously committed a crime in the neighborhood and were trying to detain him for police, before one of the defendants shot him in self-defense.

"We are here because of assumptions and driveway decisions," Dunikoski said. "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.' But in this case, all three defendants did everything they did based on assumptions."

"And they made decisions in their driveways based on their assumptions that took a young man's life, and that's why we are here," said Dunikoski, the senior assistant district attorney for the Cobb County District Attorney's Office, which is prosecuting the case.

Father and son Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael armed themselves and pursued Arbery after spotting him running in Brunswick, Georgia. Their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan, joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times with a shotgun.

They weren't charged until more than two months later after the cellphone video of the shooting leaked online. Each faces up to life in prison for his role in Arbery's death. The three men have separate legal teams but are standing trial together, charged with murder and other felony counts.

The defendants have said they thought Arbery was guilty of burglaries in the area when they chased him.

Dunikoski spent part of her 90-minute opening statement explaining where each of the men was on the day of the shooting to emphasize that they had no contact with Arbery, or knowledge of his whereabouts before they began chasing him, and could not have believed he was a burglar.

Arbery, she said, "was under attack by strangers" with intent to kill him.

In his opening statement, Robert Rubin, Travis McMichael's attorney, said his client was trying to make a citizen's arrest permitted under state law. Each defense team is expected to make the same argument.

The law, which dates back to 1863, was partly repealed in May. Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, said then that the Civil War-era law was "ripe for abuse."

Rubin characterized Satilla Shores as "a neighborhood on edge," where "people were alert to suspicious behavior." He said Travis McMichael knew that items had previously been taken from the half-built home of his neighbor, Larry English, before he encountered Arbery. Rubin described Travis McMichael as a man who felt a "duty" to protect his neighborhood.

"It wasn't violent crime. It was property crime," Rubin said. "The kind of crimes that are unsettling."

Rubin told the jurors that Arbery had entered English's house four times and was recorded on security cameras prior to his death. Rubin said Travis McMichael saw Arbery near English's home on Feb. 11, less than two weeks before the fatal encounter, and thought he was armed.

That run-in, Rubin said, is why Travis McMichael grabbed his gun and pursued Arbery.

Gregory McMichael's attorney, Frank Hogue, said the elder McMichael, a retired investigator for the Brunswick district attorney's office and a former Glynn County police officer, wanted to detain Arbery so he could be questioned by police.

"This case turns on intent, belief, knowledge, reasons for that belief whether they were true or not," Hogue said.

Attorneys for both men said Travis McMichael shot Arbery after he ran toward him. Rubin said Travis McMichael shot Arbery after Arbery turned toward him and they tussled.

Attorney Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, was granted permission by the judge to deliver his opening statement after the prosecution rests its case.

Just one witness, Glynn County Police Officer William Duggan, took the stand before the court recessed until Monday. He testified that when he arrived at the scene "there was blood all over."

Duggan said Travis McMichael was seated on the ground nearby.

Prosecutors played police body-camera video of Arbery laying facedown, bleeding on the street. Before the video was played in court, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley cautioned that it could provoke reaction. He asked that anyone who felt uncomfortable watching the video step out of the courtroom. The video showed Duggan turn Arbery over. His white T-shirt was soaked in his own blood.

Duggan said he at some point asked Travis McMichael if he was OK and that he responded: "No, I'm not OK. I just f---ing killed somebody."

Under cross-examination, Duggan testified that Travis McMichael appeared "very upset," citing a police report he wrote.

Before the opening statements began, Walmsley ruled on multiple motions.

He denied the defense team's motion to prevent jurors from knowing that Travis McMichael's pickup truck, which he and his father used to chase Arbery, had a vanity license plate with the old Georgia state flag on it. Attorneys for the McMichaels said they believed prosecutors would use the license plate, which features the Confederate battle flag, to suggest that Arbery would have had reason to fear for his safety when he saw it and that is why he ran from them.

Walmsley also ruled that the defense cannot admit evidence that Arbery had been on probation or that he had a small amount of THC, the psychoactive component of marijuana, in his blood at the time of his slaying.

The makeup of the jury, which includes 11 white people and one Black person, sparked backlash this week. About 27 percent of the population in Glynn County, where the jurors are from, are Black.

"It's outrageous that Black jurors were intentionally excluded to create such an imbalanced jury," civil rights lawyer Benjamin Crump, an attorney for Arbery's father, Marcus Arbery Sr., said in a statement Thursday.

Walmsley said Wednesday there "appears to be intentional discrimination" after defense lawyers unseated eight Black potential jurors. But he denied prosecutors' request to reinstate those jurors because he said the defense lawyers had presented legitimate reasons unrelated to race.

The trial is expected to last at least a month.