Language that the lawyers would not repeat ignited the livestreamed preliminary hearing Wednesday for the three men charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick.
Two words. ”F–king [N-word].”
That’s what the witness testified the shooter was heard saying standing over Arbery as he lay dying on the ground.
Under direct examination from Cobb County Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Jesse Evans, Georgia Bureau of Investigation Special Agent in Charge Richard Dial told a story of three white men tracking Arbery as he ran—blocking him repeatedly from making turns that would have allowed him to continue on his path out of their subdivision across U.S.17 into his own neighborhood.
The story Dial told—based on the GBI’s investigation—ended with the men trapping Arbery between two trucks, ordering him to “get on the ground” and then “killing him.”
Travis McMichael, 34, his father, Gregory McMichael, 64, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., 50 are all charged with murder in the death of Arbery on Feb. 23 in the Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick. No arrests were made until May 7—after the release on social media of a video showing Arbery running, being confronted by two armed men, struggling briefly with one holding a shotgun, then dropping after three shots are heard.
After seeing the video, Gov. Brian Kemp and Attorney General Chris Carr directed GBI Director Vic Reynolds to offer the bureau’s resources to a local DA—the third one assigned to the case after the first two recused themselves over conflicts of interest. Within two days of the state taking over the investigation, the McMichaels were arrested. Bryan’s arrest followed on May 22.
Bryan made the video that led to the arrests. But the police have a much longer video than the portion Bryan and Greg McMichael arranged to have leaked, according to Dial’s testimony. Dial said Bryan repeatedly blocked Arbery’s path, preventing him from running toward his own home until finally his path was cut off by Greg McMichael’s truck in front of Bryan’s.
The video shows Travis McMichael with a shotgun in a confrontation with Arbery and Greg McMichael standing in the back of a truck with a handgun. Dial testified that the father was “covering” his son.
Travis McMichael’s defense co-counsel Jason Sheffield of Peters, Rubin, Sheffield & Hodges in Atlanta was the first to cross-examine Dial.
Sheffield tried to mitigate what he called “that awful term” by asking Dial if he had ever heard about Travis McMichael using such language in other instances.
Yes, Dial answered. “Many times,” he said.
Dial said the investigation found multiple posts on social media using the same slur before the shooting. He said they found them on Travis McMichael’s cellphone and social media sites—both before and after Arbery’s death.
Sheffield asked Dial if he knew that Travis McMichael had worked with African Americans while on duty in the Coast Guard.
Dial said he didn’t know about that. But he did know Travis Michael said he “loved being on a boat because there are no N-words anywhere.”
Sheffield moved on to other questions that gave a preview of the defense strategy. He asked Dial if he was aware of mental health problems that Arbery suffered. Evans objected. Magistrate Judge Wallace Harrell said it was “almost immaterial” but allowed it. Dial said Arbery had auditory hallucinations at one time, but that was not related to what happened the day he died.
Sheffield asked a series of questions about the McMichaels’ suspicion that Arbery could have been behind burglaries in the neighborhood, because he was seen on security video walking into a house under construction. Dial answered that he found no evidence of anything being taken. Sheffield asked if anything has to be stolen in order to commit burglary.
Sheffield also asked questions suggesting Travis McMichael acted in self-defense in a struggle over his shotgun with Arbery. But Dial said the first shot hit Arbery in the chest, evidenced in the video by blood spreading over his white shirt and that the brief struggle over the gun was between the first shot and two more.
Dial also testified that Greg McMichael could be heard on the video telling his son, “Don’t shoot.”
Whether the video also picked up the racial slur will be an important point going forward, according to criminal defense attorney Page Pate, who is not involved in the case but has offices in Brunswick and Atlanta.
“That’s some devastating evidence, but we don’t know if it’s going to be admissible,” Pate said.
If all three defendants are tried together, Bryan will not have to testify, and the slur will become hearsay. If it’s on the video, it is admissible.
Pate said the defense attorneys’ questions were much broader and more open in the preliminary hearing than they would be at trial.
“The preliminary hearing is more like a deposition,” Pate said. “Better to hear it now than later.”