Prosecution, McMichaels’ attorneys finish opening statements in Arbery murder trial

Published: Nov. 5, 2021 at 12:36 PM EDT|Updated: Nov. 5, 2021 at 10:48 PM EDT
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BRUNSWICK, Ga. (WTOC) - Opening statements started Friday in the trial of three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.

The lead prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, has shown several surveillance videos as well as body cam footage from the events leading up to what she calls the “attack” on Arbery.

Some of the videos shown in court Friday were of Arbery walking through a property under construction in the Satilla Shores neighborhood where all three of the defendants lived. The prosecution said the three defendants made “driveway decisions” and assumptions that Arbery had committed some sort of crime.

Other videos showed the exact moment when Arbery was killed. The video shows the McMichaels and Bryan chasing Arbery and the moment when Arbery is confronted and ultimately shot by Travis McMichael.

Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud’s mother, was in the back of the courtroom and cried when the video of Ahmaud’s death was shown. Just before the video played, Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud’s father, left the courtroom saying he didn’t want to see it.

Outside of the courtroom, Cooper-Jones was asked why she decided to stay to watch the video.

“I decided to remain in so I could get familiar with what happened to Ahmaud the last minutes of his life. I’ve avoided the video for the past 18 months and thought it was time to get familiar with what happened to Ahmaud in the last moments of his life. I was glad I was able to stay strong,” she said.

She said it was her first time to see the entire video.

Other family members spoke before court started Friday to say when it gets too tough to watch, they too, will excuse themselves.

“It’s going to be tough. They were talking yesterday when they were doing the motions about the graphic things that we’ll see, the body on the ground, the autopsy too. It’s going to be rough, but I think at those times if it gets challenging for us, we’ll just leave the room until that part is over,” Thea Brooks said.

So far, the prosecution has finished opening statements.

Travis McMichael’s defense attorney is giving his opening statements. The other two defense teams will follow over the next few hours.

Also in the courtroom Friday is Leigh McMichael, her husband Greg and her son Travis are both on trial for murder. She has not spoken publicly about how this case has affected her life.

During jury selection, a woman who said she knew Leigh talked about how difficult this time has been for her. She said Leigh McMichael’s life has been turned upside down, that “she really had no part of it.”

Attorneys on both sides said Ahmaud Arbery had been seen four times on video walking through the home under construction in the Satilla Shores neighborhood. That was before he was seen there on Feb. 23 – the day he was chased by three neighbors and shot and killed during a confrontation.

Defense attorney Bob Rubin described a quote “neighborhood on edge” in the months leading up to the shooting. He said property crimes were up. He and the prosecutors both said there were concerns about a number of unfamiliar people wandering through a home under construction.

The home was being built by the owner, a man named Larry English. After some of his belongings went missing, he installed a security camera at the site. The surveillance video was shown in court Friday. WTOC Investigates has previously shown you the surveillance video from Larry English and detailed the number of times police were called.

Attorneys also say Arbery was seen in several of those videos, on four different dates. And as recently as 12 days before the shooting. In one video, Arbery has visible sweat down the back of his shirt and jogs away. The prosecution said he never took anything.

The defense said the McMichaels had seen Arbery in one of those videos being shared by neighbors before the day of the shooting.

Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski used the term “driveway decisions” several times when describing each of the defendants actions the day Arbery was shot and killed in the Satilla Shores neighborhood.

At one point, Dunikoski noted the moment defendant William Roddie Bryan, Jr. saw the McMichael’s white pickup truck going after Ahmaud Arbery. That was caught on Bryan’s home security camera.

“You’re witnessing his driveway decision, to join the McMichaels in chasing down Mr. Arbery,” said Dunikoski.

Dunikoski told the jury after being cut off by the McMichael’s pickup truck on the road, Arbery turned around, running back toward Roddie Bryan.

“He pulled out to try to hit him and ran him into the ditch. False imprisonment on Burford, aggravated assault with a motor vehicle by both parties on Burford, to cut off Mr. Arbery. Ladies and gentlemen, at this point in time Mr. Arbery is under attack,” said Dunikoski.

Dunikoski noted Bryan’s truck came so close to hitting Arbery, that a hand print and t-shirt fibers from Arbery were found on the trucks surface.

Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, actually deferred his opening statement Friday, and asked to give it at the end of the State’s presentation of evidence. That will be days from now. Judge Walmsley said this is the first time he’s seen an attorney ask for that.

Opening statements end, first witness takes the stand

Opening statements are over for the day, and the first witness took the stand late Friday afternoon.

They’ve been showing very graphic body camera video of when officers arrived on the scene.

“The amount of blood loss I saw on the scene. The lack of rise and fall of the chest. And basically the gaping wound I saw on his chest. There was nothing I could do for him,” said Officer William Duggan, Glynn County Police.

“Why are we here? We are here because of assumptions and driveway decisions,” said Dunikoski.

Dunikoski used that phrase several times to describe the defendants’ choices to go after Ahmaud Arbery as he was running through the Satilla Shores neighborhood. That pursuit ultimately led to the fatal shooting of Arbery, with Travis McMichael pulling the trigger.

A lawyer for Travis McMichael told the jury his client’s actions were self defense.

“Travis McMichael reasonably believes, because Ahmaud Arbery is on him, aggressively, screaming loudly, grabbing hold of him, grabbing hold of the gun, reasonably believes he is justified in firing his weapon,” said Robert Rubin, Travis McMichael’s attorney.

One of the Arbery family’s attorneys says day one of trial was a difficult day for them.

“The most upsetting part for this family was the arguments from the defense and they did everything that they could to put the victim, Ahmaud Arbery on trial,” said Lee Merritt, Arbery family attorney.

Attorneys on both sides said Ahmaud Arbery had been seen four times on surveillance videos walking through a home under construction in the Satilla Shores neighborhood on four different dates.

“Not a single time was he ever accused of taking anything, breaking anything. The defense continued to mischaracterize his presences by breaking in,” Merritt said.

Over the next two weeks or so, the state will try to prove what happened to Arbery was not in self defense.

Court ends for the day

Court ended just after 5:30 p.m. on Friday. It will continue Monday morning at 9 a.m.

Outside the courthouse, a crowd of people have gathered throughout the day. As the weather got worse, that crowd started to leave. A lot of the people were gathered to pray and chant.

WTOC caught up with one group of mostly people who live in Brunswick who stayed there all day. Annie Polite, 87, says she stayed to show the Arbery family that she and members of the community here have their back.

“With all that’s gone on, I feel like I had the duty and a responsibility to be here to support this family because certainly by now justice needs to be served,” Polite said.

Annie and the other people she was with say they will continue to show their support anyway they can.

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