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Brunswick, Georgia prepares for the trial in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

One of the killings that sparked racial justice protests last year is again in the national spotlight, with a trial set to begin next week in Brunswick, Ga. Three white men are accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man shot and killed as he was jogging down a residential street.

NPR's Debbie Elliott will be covering the trial. Debbie, welcome. Remind us what happened there.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Morning - well, it was February of 2020 in the coastal neighborhood in Glynn County, Ga. Ahmaud Arbery had refused to stop as the three defendants chased him down with pickup trucks. Now, they had suspected him of recent break-ins, although police had not linked him to any. Arbery was unarmed. But one of the men had a shotgun and confronted Arbery. He fought back and was shot to death. Now, advocates for the defendants are going to argue it was a legal citizen's arrest gone tragically awry.

MARTINEZ: Now, you've spent some time reporting in Brunswick recently. How do people there describe what's at stake in this trial?

ELLIOTT: You know, local activists and Arbery's family see this case as yet another test, you know, in the nation's struggle for racial justice, in part because of how local law enforcement initially handled this case, seemingly protecting the accused. And even ahead of the trial, there has been this grassroots push for accountability.

I met Theawanza Brooks in the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside Brunswick, the spot where her nephew, Ahmaud Arbery, was killed.

THEAWANZA BROOKS: That's where he last laid to rest. This is where it was right here.

ELLIOTT: It's a neighborhood filled with large oak trees and brick ranch-style homes. A sign in one front yard declares, we run with Ahmaud. Arbery, a former high school athlete, lived about two miles from here. Brooks says this was one of his running routes.

BROOKS: It was common for him to run. Ahmaud really ran, like, all over Brunswick. This was just a good place, we thought, you know, because it was a neighborhood off the highway. You know, he would jog through his neighborhood and then cross the highway.

ELLIOTT: But some residents here had grown suspicious of Arbery after repeatedly seeing him entering a new home construction site.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: Hey. This is round about Satilla Shores.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK.

T MCMICHAEL: (Unintelligible) out here. There's a guy in a house right now. It's a house under construction.

ELLIOTT: That's defendant Travis McMichael on a 911 call minutes before he shot Ahmaud Arbery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

T MCMICHAEL: And he's running right now. There he goes right now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Unintelligible). OK, what is he doing?

T MCMICHAEL: He's running down the street.

ELLIOTT: The dispatcher says she'll send police, but asks, what was he doing wrong? Then there's a second 911 call from Travis's father, Gregory McMichael, also a defendant.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GREGORY MCMICHAEL: There's a Black male running down the street.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Satilla - where at Satilla Shores?

G MCMICHAEL: I don't know what street we're on. (Unintelligible). Stop (unintelligible). Damn it. Stop. Travis.

ELLIOTT: Seconds later, you hear three shotgun blasts. Theawanza Brooks says she often imagines what that moment must have been like for her nephew, trapped and fighting for his life. Now she's bracing herself to hear defendants argue this all happened because they suspected Arbery in neighborhood thefts.

BROOKS: And even if you steal something, nobody has the decision to make as far as being the judge, jury and the executioner.

ELLIOTT: At trial, Travis and Gregory McMichael and another neighbor, William Bryan, will face state charges of murder, false imprisonment and aggravated assault for chasing Arbery in pickup trucks and shooting him to death. They've separately been charged with federal hate crimes. That trial is scheduled for early next year. Arbery's shooting has drawn intense national scrutiny, happening around the same time that racial justice protests were erupting in response to police killings. There were serious questions about how Glynn County officials originally handled the case. Nothing happened until cellphone video of the killing recorded by defendant Bryan was released months later on social media.

The former district attorney now faces charges she tried to shield the McMichaels from prosecution. The elder McMichael had worked as an investigator in the DA's office and was a former police officer. His son had been in the Coast Guard. Several judges and prosecutors have recused themselves from the case. It took nearly three months before arrests were made after mounting public pressure and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation taking the case from Glynn County Police.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Let me get some stuff for you to clean up with, all right, sir?

ELLIOTT: This body cam video shows police treating Travis McMichael with great care and deference as he stood literally with blood on his hands while Arbery lay in the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: That's OK. Do you have any other weapons or anything on you?

T MCMICHAEL: Just that.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: OK.

T MCMICHAEL: If he would've stopped, this wouldn't have happened.

UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: I know. That's fine. That's fine. Like I said, just take a breath.

JOHN PERRY: They were given a courtesy that the normal citizen would not have received.

ELLIOTT: Pastor John Perry was president of the local NAACP when Arbery was killed.

PERRY: Particularly in the Black community, if you were found to have killed someone, you know, you're getting handcuffed, and you're getting booked.

ELLIOTT: Perry is running for mayor of Brunswick in the aftermath of Arbery's killing. He's part of a crowded field that reflects a wider political awakening. He says this case is a prime example of why many Black citizens see the justice system as tainted.

PERRY: Some people call it the good old boy system. I call it relationships of privilege. You have people who ascend to places of power. And they have established relationships. And those established relationships are looked out for in a way that other people are not looked out for.

ELLIOTT: Perry and others, including federal prosecutors, say Arbery's killing was racially motivated, that he was profiled as a Black man running through a predominantly white neighborhood. Defense lawyers will reject that argument at trial.

Attorney Robert Rubin represents the gunman, Travis McMichael.

ROBERT RUBIN: There's a man in the neighborhood who doesn't belong in the neighborhood, not because he's Black. He doesn't belong in the neighborhood 'cause he's at least trespassing in a house he doesn't belong in.

ELLIOTT: Rubin argues that suspicion amounts to probable cause under Georgia's citizen's arrest law and that the McMichaels were simply trying to detain Arbery until police got there. But when Arbery resisted, he says, Travis McMichael acted in self-defense.

RUBIN: They're literally locked together. Mr. Arbery has one hand on the gun and one hand, he's punching Travis in the head. And Travis knows, if I lose possession of this gun, I'm dead. And so he fires the gun. And Mr. Arbery does not stop coming at him. And eventually he kills Mr. Arbery.

ELLIOTT: The struggle was captured on cellphone video by the third suspect, William Bryan, who goes by the name Roddie.

KEVIN GOUGH: Without Roddie Bryan, there would be no case.

ELLIOTT: Kevin Gough is Bryan's lawyer. Bryan was in the second pickup truck chasing Arbery. Gough says his client had nothing to do with the shooting and has cooperated fully with the investigation. He says it's wrong to cast this case in light of the nation's broader struggle for equal justice.

GOUGH: In some ways, it feels like these folks are being pursued, punished, prosecute - however you describe it - in a sense or a way of atoning for the sins of law enforcement, real or perceived, in the administration of justice. And that's unfortunate.

ELLIOTT: Many do see this trial in the context of other prominent racial justice cases, which have had a mixed bag of verdicts - Ahmaud Arbery as yet another name on a list that includes Trayvon Martin, Walter Scott, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd - and historically, the hundreds who came before, says Bobby Henderson, co-founder of A Better Glynn, a grassroots group formed last year in response to Arbery's killing.

BOBBY HENDERSON: Here we are in the South, and we witnessed a lynching. How far are we from 1892? That's what's on the line.

ELLIOTT: Standing on the steps of the historic Glynn County Courthouse, Henderson says, for too long, places like this did not afford justice to people like him. He sees this case as a test of whether that has changed.

HENDERSON: Here we are again with another opportunity to - can we sustain any of this momentum toward true equity, equality and justice? Or are we just stuck in a cycle of some people get it and some people don't? It all - it depends. The American Constitution should not be a parchment of it depends.

ELLIOTT: His group has worked to organize people and voters and has lobbied for policy changes and investigations. And in the last year, the needle has moved. The district attorney, who failed to investigate Arbery's killing, was voted out of office and is now under indictment for her handling of the case. The Georgia Legislature repealed the state's citizen's arrest law and passed new hate crimes legislation. And Glynn County has a new police chief - the first Black man to lead the department. Henderson says those are steps toward a more inclusive government.

HENDERSON: We think that that is a direct reflection on the amount of work that we've done to get the people to realize their own power and where they can utilize their power in order to create their own good.

ELLIOTT: Ahmaud Arbery's aunt, Theawanza Brooks, recognizes the change that has come in her nephew's name.

BROOKS: A difference has been made since his death. We learned that when we come together collectively as a community, things change. And I think that this tragedy has opened up the eyes of a lot of people.

ELLIOTT: Brooks has organized a pretrial rally Saturday at the Glynn County Courthouse.

MARTINEZ: Wow, Debbie, a lot at stake for this trial - what will be happening on Monday?

ELLIOTT: Well, jury selection is set to begin. They're going to be trying to find people who can be impartial, given the high-profile nature of this case. We also expect that there will likely be protesters on the courthouse grounds.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, thanks a lot.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL'S "CHORD LEFT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.