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Federal prosecutor opens the hate crimes trial of Ahmaud Arbery's killers

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There's a federal hate crimes trial underway in Georgia related to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The central question is whether the three white men who killed Arbery were motivated by racism. Benjamin Payne from Georgia Public Broadcasting joins us from Brunswick, Ga., where the trial is taking place. Thanks so much for being here.

BENJAMIN PAYNE, BYLINE: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, Benjamin, let's just start with what arguments the prosecutors plan to make.

PAYNE: Sure. Prosecutors say that the three defendants - Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan - held deeply racist worldviews, especially against African Americans, and that because of their views, they wrongly suspected that Arbery had committed a crime when he was running through their neighborhood. In terms of proof, prosecutors say they plan to introduce social media posts from the men, as well as sworn testimony from people who knew them and had interacted with them. For example, prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein said during opening statements yesterday that they plan to call up the person who they say brought up the NAACP in a conversation with Greg McMichael, at which point the witness says McMichael went off on a racist tirade. Bernstein also said that his son, Travis McMichael, told someone the reason he enjoyed his job as a defense contractor so much was that there were zero African Americans who worked there, but that he didn't see African Americans, he used the N-word.

MARTIN: What about the attorneys for the defendants? What do they plan to argue here?

PAYNE: Basically, their argument is this - the McMichaels had a legitimate reason to chase Arbery when they saw him in the neighborhood because they recognized him from surveillance video inside a house that was under construction. As for "Roddie" Bryan, who tagged along, his attorney said in opening statements yesterday his client was just trying to document the incident on video, even though that also meant joining in on the chase. Now, what's interesting here is that none of the defense attorneys denied that the men have expressed racist views. For example, Greg McMichael's attorney told the jury that his client, quote, "said the types of things that would make people cringe and feel disgusted," unquote. The defense just argues these racist expressions were not motivating factors.

MARTIN: So, I mean, all this must be incredibly difficult for Ahmaud Arbery's family to go through. They've already been through the criminal trial. And now they're coming up on the two-year anniversary of Ahmaud Arbery's murder.

PAYNE: Yeah. Ahmaud Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said yesterday outside the federal courthouse that she's ready.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANDA COOPER-JONES: I think it's going to be a long, long, hard trial. A whole lot of hard evidence is going to come into play, so I got to be prepared for that. But I'm grateful that we're here, that we made it this far. And I think that we're going to get victory as well.

PAYNE: Arbery's father, Marcus Arbery, also said he was looking forward to a second victory.

MARTIN: The state murder trial was televised, right? Many Americans saw the guilty verdicts being read on television. But I understand there will not be cameras in the courtroom this time. Is that right?

PAYNE: That's correct. This is a federal courtroom with rules that prevent that. I spoke with Samantha Gilder. She's with a community activist group that was formed after Arbery's murder. And she's frustrated this trial isn't more open to the public.

SAMANTHA GILDER: I think without that level of visibility that there was with the state trial - once you remove that, the only thing you're left with is, you have to be able to trust the process. And so trusting the process innately is determined upon having a diverse jury that can hear this trial.

PAYNE: And the jury in this case is more diverse than the first trial. That one had only one Black juror to 11 white jurors. This federal trial has three Black jurors, one Hispanic juror and eight white jurors.

MARTIN: But it's interesting what you pointed out earlier. There is a high bar to clear here, right? Even though the defendants are known to have uttered racist phrases, they have to draw a connection to the murder of Arbery.

PAYNE: Correct - that basically they killed Arbery because he was Black. That's a much higher legal hurdle to clear than in the state murder trial since it now involves motive.

MARTIN: Benjamin Payne from Georgia Public Broadcasting. We appreciate your reporting on this. Thank you.

PAYNE: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Benjamin Payne