Will Ahmaud Arbery’s Past Be Relevant In the Upcoming Trial?

Glynn County Detention Center via AP

Attorneys in the case of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery are clashing over the admissibility of evidence in the trial as well as other issues. Superior Court Judge Timothy R. Wamsley, who is presiding over the cases of all three men accused of involvement in Arbery’s killing, heard arguments on May 12 and 13 in what is believed to be a pivotal hearing in the case.

Atlanta Black Star reported:

“The defendants were present with their respective legal teams during last week’s legal showdown. Defense attorneys wrangled with prosecutors or a dozen motions that have been filed in the three cases over the past year. Some were serious matters, while others were housekeeping issues in preparation for the trial.”

Gregory and Travis McMichael, along with their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan are also facing federal charges, including indictments related to hate crimes, interference with rights, and attempted kidnapping in connection with Arbery’s killing.

Jason Sheffield, who is representing both McMichaels, is seeking to include Arbery’s prior encounters with law enforcement, neighbors, co-workers, and family members between 2013 and the day of his death. He is attempting to convince Wamsley that these incidents should be admitted to prove the victim’s history with mental illness.

The New York Daily News reported that the “The defendants’ legal team also wants the court to admit Arbery’s mental health records, including a 2018 diagnosis of schizoaffective disorder, a rare condition with symptoms like hallucinations, mania, and depression,” according to court records. Wamsley previously said he was “not comfortable” allowing this type of evidence without a legitimate reason.

The McMichaels’ attorney argued that the incidents in question revealed a pattern of behavior in which Arbery ran away or became confrontational when approached by “authority figures.” Sheffield contends that the deceased use jogging as a “cover” to commit crimes and argued that this is the behavior in which Arbery was engaged on the day he was killed.

“[These are] acts that are inherently part of the trial of this case,” Sheffield insisted. “We believe that this [character] evidence will speak to several issues that are inherently locked within this case. That cannot be removed from the case because they are so fundamental to the issue.”

Senior Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski pushed back, arguing that Arbery’s past is not relevant to the series of events that occurred on the day Arbery was killed. She reminded the judge that the defense intends to argue that the two men acted in self-defense as they attempted to make a citizen’s arrest. She pointed out that Arbery was under no legal obligation to obey their commands and was not a threat.

“If you’re going to take the law into your own hands, you had better know what the law is,” she said.

The prosecutor claimed McMichaels and Bryan “cornered” Arbery “like a rat” and reiterated that Arbery’s past was not relevant to the accusations against the defendants.

Dunikoski claimed Bryan and the McMichaels “cornered him like a rat” and said jurors will have to weigh the reasonableness of their actions. She emphasized Arbery’s past is not relevant to the allegations against the three men.

She said:

First off, in a self-defense case, you cannot start it. If you’re the first aggressor, you cannot go ahead and murder somebody. You can’t claim self-defense if you started it. They started this when Greg McMichael saw Ahmaud Arbery running down the street. They had no knowledge that he had been inside 220 Satilla Shores just moments earlier.

On the other hand, the defense is attempting to prevent possibly incriminating phone calls and text messages that show racial animus from being admitted into evidence. These include an October 2019 Facebook post when Travis McMichael wrote “slanted-eyed f**ks” and another in which he wrote about “shooting a crackhead coon with gold teeth.”

These and other racist remarks from both McMichaels and Bryan were revealed in a preliminary hearing. Bryan told law enforcement officials that Travis yelled “f*cking n*gger” after shooting Arbery.

Gregory McMichael, Travis’ father and a former police officer, made incriminating comments during phone calls he made from jail after he was arrested. While speaking with his brother, he said, “no good deed goes unpunished.”

In another call, he told his wife to “get rid of it” when discussing their daughter’s social media posts, according to court documents. He also told his wife to delete his social media posts and asks her to tell a third party not to answer questions related to the case.

“When he answers the phone, tell him flat out not to say anything,” he allegedly said.

Judge Wamsley has not yet announced a decision on any of these matters.

Still, even if the judge allows Arbery’s mental illness and past run-ins with the authorities to be admitted as evidence, it might not be easy to convince a jury that it is relevant to the case. Tying his past behavior and other issues to the actions of the McMichaels and Bryan will prove to be a challenge given that there does not seem to be any details that could justify chasing Arbery down with guns instead of calling the police. Unless there are other facts that have not yet been made public, it might be a stretch.

The trial is set to begin on October 18. Each defendant faces nine counts including aggravated assault, felony murder, malice murder, and several other charges.