SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Three white men serving prison terms for the 2020 killing of Ahmoud Arberry are asking an appeals court to overturn their federal hate crime convictions, two of them arguing that their history of making racist comments is not proof they targeted Arbury because he was black.
“Any crime committed against an African-American by a person who has used racist language in the past is not a hate crime,” defense attorney Pete Theodosion said in an appellate brief written on behalf of defendant William “Roddy” Bryan.
Arbury, 25, was chased by pickup trucks and fatally shot on the streets of a Georgia neighborhood outside the port city of Brunswick on February 23, 2020. His killing sparked a national outcry when Brian’s cellphone video of the shooting was leaked online more than two months later.
Greg McMichael and his son Travis McMichael armed themselves with guns and chased after Arbury after he was spotted walking past their home. Brian joined the chase in his own truck and recorded Travis McMichael shooting Arbury at close range with a shotgun.
All three men were sentenced to life in prison after a jury convicted them of murder in a Georgia state court in 2021. The following year, they were retried in U.S. District Court and found guilty of federal hate crimes of Arbury’s death. That jury was shown approximately two dozen racist text messages and social media posts from McMichaels and Bryan.
They all filed legal briefs in their federal appeals March 3 to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta. Attorneys for Brian and Greg McMichael say their hate crime convictions should be overturned because evidence shows they went after Arbury thinking he was a criminal, not because of his race.
Greg McMichael began the pursuit when Arbury ran past his home because he recognized the young black man from security camera footage that had in previous months shown Arbury entering a neighboring home under construction. None of the videos showed him stealing, and Arbury was unarmed and had no stolen property when he was killed.
Arbury’s race was “a fact of no greater importance to Gregory McMichael’s calculations than Mr. Arbury’s biological sex, the shorts he wore, his hairstyle or his tattoos,” wrote Greg McMichael’s attorney, AJ Balbo. He said there would not have been a chase if the runner had been a black woman.
Brian didn’t know the McMichaels and had never seen the security camera footage. Still, his attorney said Bryan “had every right to assume” that Arbury was possibly a criminal after seeing him running with McMichaels in pursuit and ordering Arbury to stop.
“Arbury never called for help or gave any indication that he was the victim of an unprovoked attack,” Theodosion wrote on Brian’s behalf.
Travis McMichael’s appeal does not attempt to dispute whether racism motivated Arbury’s murder. Instead, his lawyer argued on a technicality, saying prosecutors failed to prove Arbury was chased and killed on public streets — as stated in the indictment used to charge the three men.
Defense attorney Amy Lee Copeland says documents show Glynn County officials refused to take over Satilla Shores streets from a private developer when the subdivision was dedicated in 1958. She says there’s no record the county ever changed his mind.
Defense attorneys made the same arguments challenging racial motives and whether the streets were public during the federal trial in February 2021.
Prosecutors argued at trial that McMichaels and Bryan chased down and shot Arbury out of “pent-up racial anger.”
Brian had used racial slurs in text messages saying he was upset his daughter was dating a black man. A witness testified that Greg McMichael angrily remarked about the death of civil rights activist Julian Bond in 2015: “All these black people are just trouble.” In 2018, Travis McMichael commented on a Facebook video of a black man pranking a white man: “I’d kill that f—-p.”
When asked if the streets were public, prosecutors showed 101 service tickets for work the county had done in the neighborhood, mostly ditches and drainage. Copeland argued that there is no indication that the county is paving or maintaining streets other than in connection with drainage repairs.
The US Department of Justice, which is prosecuting the hate crime case, has 30 days to file legal briefs in response to the hate crime complaints. Spokesmen for U.S. Attorney Jill Steinberg, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Georgia and the Department of Justice in Washington declined to comment Friday.
The 11th Circuit has not set a date for hearing oral arguments in the hate crime appeals. Both McMichaels received life sentences in the federal case, while Bryan was sentenced to 35 years in prison. Also pending are appeals by the three men of their murder convictions in Glynn County Superior Court.