William Bryan used racial slurs about daughter’s date days before killing Ahmaud Arbery, prosecutor says

‘If Ahmaud Arbery had been White, he would have gone for a jog, checked out a cool house under construction, and been home in time for Sunday supper,’ prosecutor says in opening arguments

Rachel Sharp
Tuesday 15 February 2022 16:02
Ahmaud Arbery's mother calls for 'maximum sentence' for son's killers

William “Roddie” Bryan referred to a Black man his daughter was dating as an “n-word” and “monkey” just days before he murdered Ahmaud Arbery in a crime prosecutors argue was racially motivated, a court heard on Monday.

The 52-year-old, who was sentenced to life in prison for Arbery’s murder at his state trial last month, repeatedly used racial slurs when he learned his daughter was seeing a Black man, according to Assistant US Attorney Bobbi Bernstein.

“[She] is dating a [n-word] now,” Bryan allegedly said in one of the messages.

The shocking use of racial slurs came to light on Monday in opening statements in the federal hate crimes trial of the three white men who murdered Arbery back in February 2020.

Bryan, Gregory McMichael, 66, and Travis McMichael, 36, are each charged with one count of interfering with Arbery’s civil rights to use a public street because of his race and one count of attempted kidnapping.

The McMichael father and son duo are also charged with one count each of using, carrying, and brandishing a firearm and Travis McMichael also has one count of discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.

The charges come with a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The hate crimes trial centres around the allegation that the three white men targeted Arbery because of his race when they chased the unarmed Black jogger in their pickup trucks and shot him dead in the street in broad daylight.

In opening statements, lead prosecutor Ms Bernstein presented racist language used by all three defendants in the likes of social media posts, messages and comments made to friends prior to Arbery’s murder.

The prosecutor told jurors that if Arbery had been white “he would have been home in time for Sunday dinner”.

“At the end of the day, the evidence in this case will prove that if Ahmaud Arbery had been White, he would have gone for a jog, checked out a cool house under construction, and been home in time for Sunday supper,” she said.

“Instead, he went out for a jog and ended up running for his life.”

Gregory McMichael during jury selection in the state trial in October

As well as Bryan’s comments about the Black man his daughter was dating, Ms Bernstein also pointed to his statements to police officers in the immediate aftermath of Arbery’s death.

Bryan said that he just “knew” Arbery “had to be a criminal” when he saw him running through the neighbourhood, telling investigators his evidence for that assumption was “instinct”.

Travis McMichael, meanwhile, used racial slurs in a number of social media posts and messages to friends and referred to Black people as “animals, criminals, monkeys, sub-human savages”, Ms Bernstein said.

The prosecutor also read out one text message where he used the “n-word” and spoke of his satisfaction that he didn’t work with any Black people.

“Zero [n-words] work with me. They ruin everything. That’s why I love what I do now. Not a [n-word] in sight,” he said in the message.

Ms Bernstein also told jurors that they would hear during the trial how Travis McMichael shouted a racial slur at Arbery as he lay dying in the road.

Gregory McMichael, meanwhile, told someone he knew while working as an investigator in the Glynn County District Attorney’s Office that “Blacks are nothing but trouble”, the prosecutor said.

Travis McMichael during the state trial where he was found guilty of murder

The witness, who will testify at the trial, said that his comments came in reaction to the news that civil rights leader Julian Bond had died back in 2015.

“I wish he’d been put in the ground years ago. He was nothing but trouble. Those Blacks are nothing but trouble,” Gregory McMichael allegedly said.

The prosecutor told jurors that the use of racist language is not a crime but that the examples are “evidence as to why a defendant did what he did”.

She said they would hear how the three men “made assumptions about Ahmaud based on the colour of his skin”.

In opening arguments for the defence, attorneys admitted that the men had used racist language in the past but said that race did not motivate their actions on the day Arbery was killed.

Instead, they said the court would hear how they were motivated by a desire to protect their neighbourhood.

Gregory McMichael’s attorney A J Balbo said he and Travis McMichael “followed Ahmaud Arbery not because he was a Black man, but because he was the man who had been illegally entering the house that was under construction”.

Amy Lee Copeland, Travis McMichael’s attorney, said that he was “trying to be a good neighbour” and that, “no matter how hard to stomach these words and these opinions are going to be”, his use of racial slurs is not a crime.

At the state trial, the defence claimed that they suspected Arbery of breaking into a home under construction in the neighbourhood.

A picture of Ahmaud Arbery is on display outside the Glynn County Courthouse in November

Bryan’s attorney Pete Theodocion said the 52-year-old would have acted the same way if Arbery had been “white, Hispanic, or Asian”.

Opening statements got underway on Monday after a jury of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person was selected. Three white people and one Pacific Islander were selected as alternates.

The trial came after the judge denied a plea deal for the McMichaels, where they agreed to plead guilty to hate crimes charges and be sentenced to 30 years in prison in exchange for being moved to a federal prison.

The plea agreement was condemned by Arbery’s family who said they had made it clear they do not want his killers to be able to serve their sentences in a comfier facility. Federal prisons are notoriously more comfortable, better funded and safer.

Travis McMichael had changed his plea to guilty - admitting that he chased and killed the Black 25-year-old because of his race - and his father had agreed to do the same before US District Judge Lisa Godbey rejected the deal, saying she was not willing to be bound by the terms of the agreement.

Travis McMichael changed his plea back to not guilty, paving the way for the father and son duo to join Bryan at the federal trial.

The three white men chased Arbery through the Satilla Shores neighbourhood of Georgia in their pickup trucks before Travis McMichael shot him dead in the road back on 23 February 2020.

All three were found guilty of Arbery’s murder at a state trial in Brunswick back in November.

At their sentencing in January, Travis and Gregory McMichael were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole while Bryan was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole, making him eligible for release after 30 years in prison.

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