Judge: Arbery's past not relevant to case

Sep. 3—Ahmaud Arbery's past brushes with the law have no bearing on the actions of the three White men charged with murder in the 25-year-old Black man's shooting death in February 2020, a judge ruled this week.

As such, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley said, defense attorneys cannot tell jurors about Arbery's previous encounters with law enforcement when the trial begins next month in Brunswick. The murder trial of Travis McMichael, 35, his father Gregory McMichael, 65, and William "Roddie" Bryan, 52, is scheduled to begin Oct. 18 with jury selection.

The defense will argue that the McMichaels and Bryan were attempting a citizen's arrest and that Travis McMichael acted in self defense when he shot and killed the unarmed Arbery on a public street in the Satilla Shores community on Feb. 23, 2020. The three men pursued in pickup trucks as Arbery ran through the neighborhood, his path blocked by the two trucks several times during the seven-minute ordeal, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents have testified.

Bryan used his cellphone camera to record the deadly confrontation, a video that sparked national outrage and cries of racial injustice when it went viral online in May 2020. The GBI took over the investigation shortly afterward and arrested all three men on murder and attempted false imprisonment charges later that month.

During a procedural hearing in May, defense attorneys sought Walmsley's permission to present the jury with evidence of four encounters Arbery previously had with law enforcement, two of which ended in arrest. Defense attorneys argued in May the encounters demonstrated a pattern of lawlessness and disregard for authority, behavior they said was relevant to the events of Feb. 23.

Prosecuting attorneys with the Cobb County District Attorney's Office countered that the McMichaels and Bryan had no knowledge of Arbery's police history and that he was acting lawfully on a public street at the time. Cobb Assistant DA Linda Dunikoski further argued that Arbery had no obligation to comply with the demands of the men chasing him, two of whom were armed.

In his nine-page order issued Tuesday, Walmsley agreed with the prosecution, referring to Arbery's law enforcement encounters as "other acts." Any value these other acts have to the defense is outweighed by their ability to unduly influence the jury regarding Arbery's character, Walmsley said.

A person's past character in such incidents is generally not admitted as court evidence, except when a valid case can be made for doing so. The defense did not made such a case, he said.

"Although permissible uses have been proffered, it is apparent from the arguments presented that Defendants' intended use of the victim's other acts is to engage in speculation as to why Arbery acted as he did on February 23, 2020," wrote Walmsley, a Chatham County Superior Court judge who was assigned to preside over the case. "This is clearly bad character and propensity evidence and it was unknown to the Defendants on February 23, 2020."

An avid jogger, Arbery was out for a run when he stepped briefly into a home under construction at 220 Satilla Drive that Sunday afternoon. Having committed no crime, GBI agents say, Arbery stepped back out of the structure and continued running down Satilla Drive.

As Arbery ran past the McMichaels' residence nearby on Satilla Drive, the father and son pursued him in a pickup truck after arming themselves — Gregory McMichael with a .357 Magnum handgun and Travis McMichael with a 12-guage shotgun loaded with buckshot. The McMichaels have said they suspected Arbery of burglary.

Moments later, Bryan joined the chase in his own pickup truck after seeing Arbery run past his home on Burford Road with the McMichaels in pursuit.

There is little dispute between the defense and the prosecution regarding these sequence of events. The defense will argue it was a case of citizen's arrest and self-defense. The prosecution will argue it was murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

Arbery's encounters with law enforcement prior to that day have no substantial value to evidence presented to the jurors, Walmsley wrote.

"As noted above, it is not disputed that Arbery was in 220 Satilla Drive on February 23, 2020, that he was seen running in Satilla Shores, and video shows what actually happened in the moments before his death," Walmsley wrote. "Therefore, the defendants have failed to show a need for the evidence. The Defendants did not provide this Court with specifics of how the 'other acts' may explain Arbery's conduct."

Attorneys Jason Sheffield and Robert Rubin of Decatur represent Travis McMichael. Attorneys Frank and Laura Hogue of Macon represent Gregory McMichael. Local attorney Kevin Gough and attorney Jessica Burton of Atlanta represent Bryan.

The McMichaels and Bryan also face federal hate crimes charges, including inference of rights and attempted kidnapping.

The McMichaels also are charged in the federal indictment with using a firearm in a crime of violence. Travis McMichael additionally faces a charge of discharging a firearm in a crime of violence.

That trial is set to begin with jury selection Feb. 7 at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Brunswick.