By Amy Berberyan, Sonam Hundal, and Silverio Rizo Llamas
BRUNSWICK, GA – Opening arguments began here last Friday in the trial for those accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020—the three co-defendants included Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan.
Senior Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski said that “all three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions.”
When giving context for the case, Dunikoski described the geography of Satilla Shore—the neighborhood where the murder occurred.
This included the construction site owned by a man unrelated to the defendants or the victim. The site had open doors, did not have no-trespassing signs, or a fence around the property. There were docks in the back, where kids would often go to play.
In late Nov. of 2019, Dunikoski said that the owner noticed “close to $2,500 worth of stuff missing” from a boat on the docks. Since the owner lived two hours away from Satilla Shores, he had motion-activated cameras installed.
Though Arbery, whom Dunikoski described as an “avid runner,” showed up on camera multiple times, he never stole anything. He wandered and looked around the open construction site, and then left.
On Jan. 1, 2020, 54 days before the homicide, Travis McMichael’s handgun was stolen out of his unlocked car. There was no evidence Arbery stole it. The neighborhood was on edge at this point. Dunikoski mentioned that no one wants to live in a “neighborhood where property theft is common.”
The ADA noted that on Feb. 23, 2020, Arbery went to the construction site; afterwards, he was spotted by Gregory McMichael running down the street. Gregory called 911. When the operator asked what Arbery was doing wrong, Greg replied “he’s running down the street.” He also described Arbery as “hauling ass.”
What followed was the first major decision one of the defendants made based off an assumption, said the prosecutor—Gregory McMichael had no idea where Arbery was coming from or what he had done. He assumed the worst and decided to get his gun.
The second major decision, said ADA Dunikoski to the jury, occurred when Travis McMichael went along with his dad rather than trying to calm him down. Travis grabbed his shotgun and got in his white pickup truck. Gregory sat next to him in kid carseat; they were in such a hurry that he never bothered to take it out.
The ensuing pickup truck chase that ended in Arbery’s death lasted just five minutes, said the prosecutor.
The third decision made from assumption occurred during this chase was when co-defendant Michael Bryan saw the McMichaels chasing Arbery and joined in with his own pickup truck, said ADA Dunikoski.
Dunikoski described it as false imprisonment by caging the jogger with the trucks, and aggravated assault, trying to hit him with pickup trucks. The ADA said Bryan tried to hit him four times with his truck. Bryan kept Arbery from running out of the neighborhood, and led him toward the McMichaels, said the ADA.
ADA Dunikoski began by stating that Ahmaud Arbery was running away from the defendants in their pickup trucks for “five minutes,” and asked the jury, “How would you know he was under attack? (they said) ‘stop or ill blow your f***ing head off!'”
As the prosecution was retelling the incident, Arbery’s mother broke down and the camera zoomed in on her as she witnessed the murder of her son through video in court.
ADA Dunikoski then showed the court that Travis McMichael raised his Remington 12 gauge and emphasized that he was far away from Ahmaud Arbery.
The prosecution then asked the court “How do you know it’s an attack? Mr. McMichael said it perfectly: ‘He is trapped like a rat.’”
She continued by telling the court that the defendants’ emergency was “I’m out here in Satilla Shores and there’s a Black man running down the street.” The prosecution explained that Ahmaud Arbery was trapped by the defendants and then killed by Travis McMichael, who moved toward Arbery.
The prosecution then showed the court enhanced film in which the “shotgun (of the defendant) goes up.” ADA Dunikoski explained that Travis McMichael claimed Arbery was moving toward him and “squared up with (him),” and tried to “attack him.”
However, the prosecution presented analysis from the medical examiners which showed that the first shot toward Arbery was to the torso. She stated that from the analysis it was clear his torso was turned. She then explained that the second shot was toward Arbery’s arm which hit a major artery “making it useless.”
The prosecution then explained that Travis McMichael admitted that he “can’t remember” if Arbery tried to grab his gun. She emphasized that the defendant did not try to make an arrest. “Not one single defendant said ‘I was trying to arrest him’ or accuse him of a crime”
However the prosecution noted Greg McMichael did say, “I don’t think the guy has actually stolen anything out of there, or if he did it was early on in the process.”
ADA Dunikoski said, “No one said we have evidence that he stole from (a resident’s) boat.” Instead, they told the officers they should go investigate because they were sure Arbery had committed a crime. They never stated an actual crime.”
The prosecution argued the defendants assumed the worst and never stated an actual crime as to why Arbery should have been arrested.
The prosecution stated that “Mr. Arbery is dead because they wanted to know who he was.”
The prosecution then explained that Glen County PD interviewed everyone, collected photos, and the shotgun. Travis McMichael was driven to the PD covered in blood and Greg McMichael was allowed to go home to change.” After this, the investigation stalled, until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation got involved.
Special Agent Richard Dial of the GBI was assigned to the case, and arrested Travis and Greg McMichael for felony murder.
The prosecution explained that defendant William Bryan was not initially involved in the investigation but was later cooperative and rode with Agent Seacrest, explaining to him what happened on the day of the murder. However, Bryan denied that he tried to hit Arbery with his car, and was then arrested.
“They didn’t just follow Arbery,” the prosecution said, charging they were chasing him and “trapped him like a rat.”
The prosecution said the defendants worsened the entire situation and that they attacked Arbery “for five minutes” while Arbery just tried to run away.
ADA Dunikoski finished by explaining that Arbery tried to run around the truck of these complete strangers who had already stated they would kill him and eventually did kill him. The prosecution asked the jury to find the defendants guilty on “every single charge.”
The court took issue with the way that the opening statement was exhibited to them with such “artful language.”
After some back and forth regarding the length of time it took to give the opening statement, and the argument that the opening statement itself included an argument, the judge stated, “There’s always going to be a little bit of argument in an opening statemen—that’s just what lawyers like to do.”