Opening Statements Begin in Hate Crimes Trial for Arbery Killing

Nicole Craine for The New York Times

The men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, already convicted of murder, are now being tried on charges that focus not just on what they did, but also on why they did it.

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At the federal courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., a jury will be asked to determine whether the three white defendants violated federal law when they chased and killed the 25-year-old Black man “because of Arbery’s race and color,” as an indictment puts it.

That direct reckoning with race sets the Arbery case apart from other recent prosecutions of violent acts against Black people that have shaken American society — incidents that have been largely viewed, outside the courtroom, through the prism of race, but which are often prosecuted on other grounds.

Most hate-crime cases prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice do not go to trial — they usually end with defendants pleading guilty. In the Arbery case, however, a judge rejected a proposed plea deal for two of the defendants in late January after Mr. Arbery’s family objected.

The trial is almost certain to feature ugly evidence, culled from seized cellphones and other sources, as prosecutors attempt to prove that the three men — Travis McMichael, 36, his father, Gregory McMichael, 66, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — harbored overtly racist views before the afternoon in February 2020 when they chased Mr. Arbery, whom they suspected in a series of break-ins in their Georgia neighborhood.

Experts say, however, that this evidence alone may not be enough to convince a jury that the men were motivated to pursue and harm Mr. Arbery specifically because of his race. That makes the trial a test for President Biden’s Justice Department and for Attorney General Merrick B. Garland, who has made the prosecution of hate crimes one of his top priorities.

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“This is going to be a difficult case to prove,” said Deval L. Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts who headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Bill Clinton. “It doesn’t mean the case isn’t there to be made.”

Jury selection was completed on Monday morning. The jurors, chosen from 43 counties in Georgia’s Southern district, include three Black members, eight white members and one Hispanic member. They include a cook, a social worker, a stay-at-home father, a former cosmetology worker and an air-traffic controller.

Lawyers for defendants and for the government began their opening statements on Monday afternoon.

In the morning session, Amy Lee Copeland, Travis McMichael’s attorney, made a motion to dismiss the charges, arguing that the government did not follow the proper procedure when filing its indictment.

Ms. Copeland said that when the indictment was filed, the government failed to include the certification of the four lawyers who would be working on the case, invalidating the indictment.

The judge did not immediately rule on Ms. Copeland’s motion.

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