The men charged in last year’s killing of Ahmaud Arbery entered not guilty pleas on federal hate crime and attempted kidnapping charges Tuesday.
While previous court appearances in their state court proceedings in Glynn County were conducted via video link, Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan appeared in person before the federal judge — and members of Arbery’s family who sat in the gallery.
Escorted by US marshals, the men wore orange jumpsuits and were shackled at the ankles.
“This is the actual first time that we have actually been in the same courtroom with the people who are responsible for killing Ahmaud,” said Thea Brooks, Arbery’s aunt.
The McMichaels each face an additional count of using a firearm in relation to a crime of violence. They pleaded not guilty to those charges as well. The father and son were represented by court-appointed attorneys, as was Bryan. The men remain in state custody.
“I appreciate that the judge, although it was waived by the defendants, took the time to walk through the charges and the facts to show how closely the facts of this case mirror actual hate crime charges which are difficult to reach in the US in a federal setting,” said Lee Merritt, representing the Arbery family.
While the charges were being read, Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery Sr., shook his head. His niece was by his side gently patting him on his back.
“It’s hard being in a room with people that, you know, that’s taken your loved one,” said Brooks.
Arbery’s death changed Georgia law
The McMichaels claimed to be conducting a citizen’s arrest and say they acted in self-defense when they and Bryan chased and fatally shot Arbery, who was out for a jog near Brunswick last year.
Bryan, who recorded video of the death, allegedly hit Arbery with his truck after he joined the McMichaels in the chase.
“Ahmaud was the victim of a vigilante-style violence that has no place in our country or in our state,” Gov. Brian Kemp said Monday while signing HB479.
The legislation, he said, is “a complete overhaul of Georgia’s outdated citizen’s arrest statute.”
“Today we are replacing a Civil War-era law, ripe for abuse, with language that balances the sacred right to self-defense of a person and property with our shared responsibility to root out injustice and set our state on a better path forward,” Kemp said.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and his sister, Jasmine Arbery, were on hand for the signing. Cooper-Jones was thankful for the bill’s passage, she said.
“Unfortunately, I had to lose my son to get significant change, but again, I’m still thankful,” she said.
The “family is still focusing on criminal accountability and seeing this case to a prosecution of appropriate sentencing,” attorney Lee Merritt said
Arbery killed on a jog
The three men “used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race,” federal prosecutors allege.
While Arbery was jogging, the McMichaels “armed themselves with firearms, got into a truck and chased Arbery through the public streets of the neighborhood while yelling at him, using their truck to cut off his route and threatening him with firearms,” prosecutors said.
Bryan cut off Arbery’s route with his truck, prosecutors said.
“All three defendants attempted to unlawfully seize and confine Arbery by chasing after him in their trucks in an attempt to restrain him, restrict his free movement, corral and detain him against his will, and prevent his escape,” the US Justice Department said in a news release.
Video footage of the fatal shooting recorded by Bryan shows Arbery and Travis McMichael tussling before three gunshots are heard. Blood appears on Arbery’s T-shirt below his left rib cage. He stumbles and falls in the middle of the two-lane road.
Charges they face
The three men were federally charged last month with one count of interference with rights and with one count of attempted kidnapping, according to the Justice Department.
Cooper-Jones felt the hate crime charges on a federal level were “huge,” she told CNN. Another family attorney, Ben Crump, said the indictments were “yet another step in the right direction.”
“This is an important milestone in America’s uphill march toward racial justice, and we applaud the Justice Department for treating this heinous act for what it is — a purely evil, racially motivated hate crime,” Crump said in a statement.
Jason Sheffield and Robert Rubin, attorneys for Travis McMichael, were “deeply disappointed that the Justice Department bought the false narrative that the media and state prosecutors have promulgated,” they said in a statement. Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, also expressed disappointment.
“Roddie Bryan has committed no crime. We look forward to a fair and speedy trial, and to the day when Mr. Bryan is released and reunited with his family,” Gough’s statement said.
CNN has reached out to Gregory McMichael’s lawyer.
In a state trial scheduled to begin October 18, the McMichaels have pleaded not guilty to malice and felony murder charges, and counts of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Bryan pleaded not guilty to charges of criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment and felony murder.