Ahmaud Arbery’s killers want appeals court to revoke their hate crime convictions

A group of judges listened to arguments on Wednesday presented by attorneys aiming to overturn the hate crime conviction of three white men who chased Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in 2020, ultimately resulting in the fatal shooting of the Black man. The individuals involved, Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan, were previously convicted of murder in a Georgia state court in November 2021 and were subsequently sentenced to life in prison. In February 2022, they were also found guilty of hate crimes and other charges in a federal trial. Although the defendants did not make an appearance in court on Wednesday, their attorneys presented their arguments.

The trial for hate crimes focused on the racial bias of the three men, a motive that was largely avoided by prosecutors in the state case. Arbery’s family and civil rights leaders have compared his death to a modern-day lynching. Along with the killings of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by the police in 2020, his death sparked outrage over the shooting deaths of Black individuals and led to global protests against racial injustice.

According to the legal brief submitted before the arguments on Wednesday, the prosecutors stated that the evidence presented during the trial demonstrated that the defendants pursued, cornered, and ultimately murdered Arbery due to their deep-rooted hatred and prejudice towards Black individuals. Furthermore, it was revealed that the defendants also endorsed the concept of vigilante justice.

The attorneys representing the three men contend that the evidence of their previous racist comments does not establish a deliberate intention to cause harm based on racism.

The attorneys have also put forth the argument that the hate crime conviction should be dismissed. They claim that Arbery’s killing did not take place on a public street, which they believe is a necessary condition for the defendants to be held guilty under federal law.

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According to Travis McMichael’s appeals attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, prosecutors have failed to provide sufficient evidence that the streets in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, where Arbery was killed, were public roads. She made this argument before the judges from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and reiterated it in a previous legal brief.

Judge Elizabeth Branch replied that a county official from Glynn County, where the neighborhood is located, testified that the streets in Satilla Shores are officially recognized as public streets.

A.J. Balbo, the attorney for Gregory McMichael, clarified that his client’s decision to pursue Arbery was based on having seen Arbery on a security camera video, rather than solely because of his race. Balbo acknowledged that Gregory McMichael’s actions could be characterized as “hypervigilantism.” It is worth noting that Arbery had been captured on security camera footage entering a nearby home under construction on several occasions before his death, although none of the videos showed him stealing anything.

Bryan’s attorney, Pete Theodocion, questioned the charge of attempted kidnapping that all three men were found guilty of. He argued that the government needed to demonstrate that the defendants tried to restrain Arbery against his will and hold him for personal gain.

According to his argument, the three men pursued Arbery with the intention of safeguarding the community from someone they believed had committed a crime. He emphasized the importance of their actions being driven by a desire for personal benefit.

Judge Britt Grant responded by stating, “The government alleged that the benefit here was vigilantism, and the jury apparently decided that among other things, this was the case.”

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Branch informed Theodocion that she was uncertain about why the defendants, who were also members of the community, would not be included in a benefit that extended to the entire community.

Brant Levine, the prosecutor, passionately appealed to the judges to uphold the convictions for hate crimes.

The speaker emphasized the true essence of this case, highlighting that if Mr. Arbery had not been a Black man running on the streets of Satilla Shores, he would still be alive today.

According to Levine, there is enough evidence to back up each guilty verdict. He also emphasized that the defendants wouldn’t have committed a crime if they had simply questioned Arbery, believing he looked suspicious in their neighborhood.

According to Levine, if the McMichaels had approached Ahmaud and engaged him in conversation about his activities in the house, the situation would have been different. However, the McMichaels escalated the situation by brandishing their guns, shouting at Ahmaud to get on the ground, and pursuing him. Bryan also played a role by blocking Ahmaud’s exit, effectively trapping him in the neighborhood. This sequence of events led to the tragic outcome, as described by Greg McMichael who likened Ahmaud to a trapped rat.

“Why did they resort to such extreme actions? Why did they subject Ahmaud to terror for almost five minutes?” he questioned.

According to Levine, the prosecution successfully demonstrated that Arbery’s death occurred on public roads.

A rally outside the courthouse drew around thirty-six individuals, including both members of Arbery’s family and concerned community members, all united in their opposition to the appeal.

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Gerald Griggs, president of Georgia NAACP, emphasized the significance of this hate crimes conviction as it marks the first federal hate crimes conviction in Georgia. In an interview after the rally, Griggs emphasized the need to highlight the reasons behind the protest, the march, and the act of voting.

Marcus Arbery expressed gratitude towards the individuals who have provided support to his family following his son’s tragic passing. His aunt, Diane Jackson, shared that the appeal has brought back painful memories for their family.

“I still feel immense pain because when we initially witnessed the incident, we believed it would be resolved by now,” she expressed. “The manner in which they ended my nephew’s life has shattered our family.”

The case gained national attention and was taken over by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation after the leaked video went viral. This video sparked widespread outrage and raised questions regarding the delayed arrests by law enforcement officials, which took more than two months.

The appellate judges have not specified a timeframe for their ruling. In the event that the U.S. appeals court overturns any of the federal convictions, the McMichaels and Bryan would continue to serve their sentences in prison.

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