This combo of booking photos provided by the Glynn County, Ga., Detention Center, shows from left, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and William "Roddie" Bryan Jr.
( Glynn County Detention Center
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and this is The Takeaway. On Monday jury selection began the trial of 67-year-old Gregory McMichael, 35-year-old Travis McMichael, and 52-year-old William Bryan, the three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020. While Arbery was jogging near his home in Georgia, the McMichaels and their neighbor Bryan followed the 25-year-old and shot him to death from the back of their pickup truck. Video of the event was released and circulated widely on social media in the summer of 2020. Only now, more than a year later is the trial beginning for these three men. We're joined now by Nicole Lewis, Senior Editor of Jurisprudence @Slate. Nicole, it's great to have you here.
Nicole Lewis: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Remind us of who Ahmaud Arbery was and what happened to him?
Nicole Lewis: He was a young Black man out for a run as he did on many occasions in his own neighborhood when he was pursued and ultimately killed. Accounts of him put him as a fun-loving guy. He was a former football player, just this all-American person.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Clearly this slaying occurred very close to the murder of George Floyd. I'm able to say the murder of George Floyd because we've gone through an entire process of a trial and conviction of former officer Derek Chauvin. Why is it taking so long for this trial to begin?
Nicole Lewis: That's right. I think it's even important to back up and say it took long for the McMichaels and Bryan to be indicted. For many months they went free and a prosecutor suspected no wrongdoing in this case. That ultimately delays justice. Here we are again, where there were so many missteps, the prosecutor ultimately stepped down. It was turned over to another governing body. There were just so many missteps in bringing this case before a court, and so now here we are a year later with jury selection set to begin and even jury selection is likely going to be a lengthy process.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why?
Nicole Lewis: I think that it reflects a lot about the sentiments or the attitudes in our country in terms of how do we think about when a crime happens? In Georgia, in particular, the McMichaels say that they were trying to conduct a citizen's arrest. This is in Georgia statute, allows someone to pursue any person they think is in the process of committing a felony. There was some legal ambiguity about when you kill someone dead in the street without a trial, without any other justification than you believing that they're committing a crime, do you get indicted? Is this actually illegal? There was just some big question about that and now this case becomes a test of that law, and to see if we understand that extrajudicial killings like this are considered legal or justified.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How critical will jury selection be in this case?
Nicole Lewis: Absolutely. Critically important here. This is a case that received both widespread national attention, as well as local attention. This is something that you could not have missed when it happened. It was all over social media, people were talking about it, national news, local news were writing about it. It's very unlikely that the jury who is selected doesn't know any of the details of this case. I think many people are looking to see, will this jury be selected in an unbiased manner? Will there be Black people who are able to judge? Will it be a jury of his peers? What will this look like?
Someone pointed out to me yesterday that the community itself is a naturally occurring retirement community, so it tends to skew a little bit older, and older people tend to be a little bit more conservative. It also has a racial mix in which the town of Brunswick is of majority Black, but the surrounding county is not majority Black. There's just a big question about who will show up and what this jury will look like.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All right, Nicole, can you tell us a bit about what the expectations are relative to the prosecution? What approach are they planning to take?
Nicole Lewis: The prosecution wants to make the case that this was a racially motivated killing, that the men pursued Arbery, that they killed him particularly precisely because he was Black, that they thought that he fit the profile of someone who had committed a string of burglaries and so that they were somehow justified in their minds in pursuing him and killing him, so they think this is a racially motivated crime, and that they were not acting in self-defense, and that what we saw was akin to a murder. That is what the McMichaels and Bryan are charged with. That's the case that the prosecution is trying to make.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you have a sense of the ways that maybe there's no trial that's been quite like this, but certainly there have been stand-your-ground kinds of killings or tassel doctrine killings where a homeowner has killed someone who they perceive to be or who may be actually is in the case of potentially robbing them or stealing from their home or their business. Do we have any sense of how those tend to go in Georgia?
Nicole Lewis: Yes. I think it's very tricky. The senior ground law was weakened in the wake of the Arbery killing, and so it no longer has quite the same teeth or wide berth as it did when he was shot. These are very tricky cases because the senior ground laws basically mean that you do not have to try to flee or getaway, or you don't have to show that you were acting in self-defense and then when things took a turn, you tried to escape for first. You are entitled to standing your ground, to shooting back, to acting in an expanded kind of self-defense. It becomes really tricky especially when you lack any video evidence and the victim is dead, they can't share their side of the story. These are very difficult cases. In this case, it's very important to point out that we actually do have video footage, so that changes the balance just a bit.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Say a bit more about that. How do you expect the prosecution to use this footage and do we expect the defense potentially to also use the footage in some way?
Nicole Lewis: Absolutely. Video footage is open to interpretation as well and so the key argument that the defense is trying to make is that the McMichaels and Bryan acted in self-defense, that Arbery attacked them first, that this was not a racially motivated shooting. The video becomes really the pivotal thing that both sides of cases hangs on. The video shows a struggle, it shows the shooting, it shows that the McMichaels and Bryan pursued Arbery and that he tried to get away.
I think that both sides are going to try to hang their argument on what this footage shows and it's not perfectly clear. It's not a view of the entire altercation. There's also some question of whether or not the McMichaels used a racial slur and whether or not that's caught on video. I think that just still, even with this evidence, there are big, big questions about what it shows and whose side does it truly support.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let me ask about what's already happened in Georgia as a result, which is the passage of hate crime legislation. Do you expect that whether we get guilty or not guilty verdicts in this case, that it will make any difference in the broader legislative aspects of the movement for racial justice?
Nicole Lewis: I think that that's a really important question, the question that's hanging over this trial. I just want to say that I spoke to an organizer down in Georgia just yesterday. She made really clear that there are actually some bigger economic and political shifts that need to be made in this community in order for the people there to feel like they've really achieved some semblance of racial justice.
No matter the outcome of the trial, there are some underlying factors that she pointed out that make a killing like this even possible. Without big changes, without more Black people, in particular, making more money, having more opportunity, being registered to vote, being able to vote, having politicians who reflect their interests, her concern was that even if you did get a guilty verdict, that something like this could easily happen again.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Nicole Lewis, is Senior Editor of Jurisprudence @Slate. Thank you so much for joining us.
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