White men in pickup trucks chased Ahmaud Arbery for five minutes, and one threatened to shoot him, as they cut off the jogger’s escape from a subdivision and ultimately killed the 25-year-old black man with a shotgun, a US prosecutor has told a jury.
In her opening statement, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said the short mobile phone video that stirred national outrage over the killing in Georgia gave only a glimpse of the attack on Mr Arbery, who gave his pursuers no reason to suspect him of any wrongdoing.
“They assumed that he must have committed some crime that day,” Ms Dunikoski said.
“He tried to run around their truck and get away from these strangers, total strangers, who had already told him that they would kill him. And then they killed him.”
Mr Arbery’s killing on February 23 2020 was largely ignored until the video leaked and deepened a national reckoning over racial injustice.
Greg McMichael and his adult son, Travis McMichael, armed themselves and pursued Mr Arbery in a pickup truck as he ran through their neighbourhood just outside the port city of Brunswick.
A neighbour, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase and recorded graphic video of Travis McMichael shooting Mr Arbery three times.
The chase started on a Sunday afternoon when a neighbour who is not charged in the case called a non-emergency police number after seeing Mr Arbery wandering inside a home under construction, where security cameras had recorded him before.
Greg McMichael saw Mr Arbery run past his home and ran inside to alert his son.
They grabbed guns, jumped in their truck and gave chase, Ms Dunikoski said.
Bryan joined them after seeing Mr Arbery run past the McMichaels’ truck outside his home.
She said Greg McMichael later told police that at one point during the chase he shouted at Mr Arbery, “Stop or I’ll blow your f***ing head off!”
When a police officer who responded to the shooting asked Greg McMichael if Mr Arbery had broken into a house, he told the officer: “That’s just it. I don’t know… I don’t know, he might have gone in somebody’s house,” according to Ms Dunikoski.
“All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions – not on facts, not on evidence,” Ms Dunikoski said.
“And they made decisions in their driveways based on those assumptions that took a young man’s life.”
She said the grainy mobile phone video shows Travis McMichael raise his shotgun beside the truck as Mr Arbery approaches and tries to run around the opposite side.
Travis McMichael is then seen stepping in front of the truck with the gun to confront the fleeing man, she said.
As Ms Dunikoski played the video of Mr Arbery’s death for the jury, his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, cried out in the courtroom and sobbed as her lawyer tried to console her.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley swore in the disproportionately white jury on Friday before proceedings began.
All three defendants are standing trial together, charged with murder and other felonies.
Mr Arbery had been dead for more than two months before the three men were charged and jailed last year.
Greg McMichael, a retired investigator for the local district attorney, told police the men were trying to stop Mr Arbery because they suspected he was a burglar.
Security cameras had recorded him entering a nearby house under construction.
Greg McMichael said his son killed Mr Arbery in self-defence after Mr Arbery attacked him with his fists and tried to take Travis McMichael’s gun.
Prosecutors say Mr Arbery was merely out jogging, was unarmed and had committed no crimes in the neighbourhood.
When Bryan’s video of the killing leaked online in May 2020, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) took over the case from local police.
GBI agents arrested the McMichaels the next day, and charged Bryan two weeks later.
Ms Dunikoski described Mr Arbery as an “avid runner” and told the jury it was not unusual for him to go running in the Satilla Shores subdivision, which was less than two miles from his own home.
“You’re going to be able to see his Nike shoes,” she told jurors, “where he had basically no tread left on them whatsoever.”
When he was killed, Mr Arbery had no weapon and was carrying no wallet or keys, Ms Dunikoski said.
Mr Arbery “couldn’t even have called for help if he wanted to because he had no mobile phone on him”, she added.
The judge and lawyers took two-and-a-half weeks to select a jury.
Nearly 200 people summoned to jury duty were questioned extensively about what they knew about the case, how many times they had seen the video and if they had any personal connection to Mr Arbery or the defendants.
Controversy erupted on Wednesday, the final day of jury selection, when prosecutors objected to a final jury consisting of 11 whites and one black juror.
They argued that defence lawyers had cut eight potential jurors from the final panel because they are black, which the US Supreme Court has declared unconstitutional.
The judge agreed that there appeared to be “intentional discrimination”, but said Georgia law limited his authority to intervene because defence lawyers stated non-racial reasons for excluding black panellists from the jury.
One juror, a white woman, was dismissed on Thursday for medical reasons.
Fifteen total panellists will hear the trial – 12 jurors plus three alternates.
The judge has not given the races of the alternate jurors, and they were not asked to state their race in open court.
Court officials have said the trial could last two weeks or more.
If the defendants are acquitted, their legal troubles will not be over.
They have also been indicted on federal hate crime charges.
A US District Court judge has scheduled that trial to begin on February 7.