Ahmaud Arbery: Crucial frames from video implicate McMichaels in 'organized, coordinated' killing, say experts
The fatal confrontation between Arbery and the McMichaels has caught national headlines after it went viral last week
Legal experts have explained how the video of Gregory and Travis McMichael's fatal encounter with Ahmaud Arbery could be used against them by prosecutors in their murder trial. Arbery, 25, was shot three times and killed after the father-son duo confronted him as he was jogging in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia, on February 23. Neither was arrested or charged at the time, with Gregory claiming that Travis had shot Arbery in self-defense after the 25-year-old had refused to comply with their command to stop and had attacked his son.
After the video went viral last week, both were held on charges of felony murder and aggravated assault, with Arbery's family stating that he was ruthlessly gunned down by vigilantes even though he had done nothing to justify such a use of force. Speaking to USA Today, legal experts said the footage, which was shot by Travis' neighbor William 'Roddie' Bryan, will likely be used by both the prosecution and the defense to explain their actions.
In the initial frames of the video, Arbery comes into view as the car from which it is being filmed rounds the corner behind him. He can be seen jogging towards a white pickup truck, where Gregory, 64, and Travis, 34, are standing next to the open driver-side door of the truck and in the bed, respectively. Gregory had told police that he and his son grabbed their guns when they saw Arbery running in the neighborhood because they believed he matched the description of a burglary suspect in the area and weren't sure if he was armed. However, a memo by a district attorney who previously led the investigation said they were openly carrying their firearms when they confronted the 25-year-old.
Ronald L. Carlson, the Fuller E. Callaway Chair of Law Emeritus at the University of Georgia School of Law, said these initial frames provided some perspective into the scene and how it appeared to Arbery. "The thing that will stand out is the scene as it appeared to the jogger: A man standing up with a firearm in the back of a pickup truck," he explained. "That must have looked a bit jarring and bizarre."
Sarah Gerwig-Moore, associate dean for academic affairs at Mercer University School of Law, similarly said that the video showed the father-son duo "boxing" in Arbery, which along with the evidence of them grabbing their guns beforehand, could convict them on the murder charge. She said that, in Georgia, there weren't "degrees" in murder charges and that prosecutors just need to prove that the killing occurred with malice, "either express or implied." Killing anyone, regardless of intention, while committing another felony, also counted as grounds for a murder charge.
She said the prosecution could argue that the way the McMichaels "organized" and "coordinated" the shooting by trying to stop Arbery in the middle of the road could classify as implied malice. The second part of the video could imply Bryan's involvement in the shooting. It seems to show him repositioning the camera as he drives closer to the McMichaels' truck, with it dipping below the dashboard and obstructing the view of the scene. Arbery and the McMichaels come in and out of view, and the former is seen crossing from the left side of the road to the passenger side of the truck.
Lee Merritt, an attorney representing Arbery's family, said this section implicated Bryan as the sound of a firearm being cocked could be heard. "As Mr. Byran gets closer, his camera takes a dip as if he's reaching for something in the passenger seat, and you hear what my experts tell me is the sound of a round being chambered and then the camera returns," he said, adding that he was a "willing participant of this ambush."
While the Georgia Bureau of Investigation has confirmed they are looking into Bryan, his lawyer, Kevin Gough, has insisted his client has done nothing wrong, was not armed during the incident, and just a witness to the crime. The third section captured the struggle between Arbery and Travis McMichael after the camera refocused. A gunshot is heard but the truck blocks the view and when they come back on screen, both of them have their hands on the firearm.
Carlson said defense lawyers could use this moment to argue "Arbery was ordered to stop, but instead of doing that, he grabbed the gun and commenced what they say is a violent attack."
However, Sarah Gerwig-Moore said self-defense argument may hold little weight in a legal setting as Georgia does not allow for self-defense argument when the person carrying out the shooting initiated the encounter. "A struggle over the gun does not establish self-defense," she said. "He tried to disarm them really because that was his only hope of survival. "In a fight or flight scenario, he chose to fight for his life."
In the final section of the video, Gregory is seen at the back of the pickup truck aiming his gun. Arbery is seen throwing punches at Travis as the latter's gun is angled up towards him. A gunshot is heard and he continues to step back and to the right as Arbery takes a few steps forward and away from the men and falls to the ground. "It's such a tragic appearing conclusion to this episode," Carlson said. "That part will be, in my view, emotionally damaging in the defense."