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Hate crimes trial begins for men who killed Ahmaud Arbery

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

A multiracial jury has been seated in the federal hate crimes trial of three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. They chased Arbery, a Black man, with pickup trucks and shot him to death as he was running down a residential street outside Brunswick, Ga. Arbery's murder was one of several high-profile killings in 2020 that sparked racial justice protests, and now the second trial will center on the role of race in the crime. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been listening to opening statements today and joins us. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi there.

NADWORNY: So these men have been sentenced to life in prison on state murder charges. So what's the difference with this trial?

ELLIOTT: Well, this is more about the chase than the murder, really, getting to motive why these men went in pursuit of Ahmaud Arbery. Federal prosecutors say the defendants, Greg and Travis McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan, targeted Arbery because he was Black. Prosecutor Barbara Bernstein said it's because they made assumptions about Arbery based on the color of his skin that they figured the only reason he might be running would be away from a crime, an assumption, she said, they would never have made had he been a white man running through their neighborhood.

NADWORNY: What evidence does the government have that racism was at play?

ELLIOTT: Well, the men in their own words - evidence that prompted the judge to give jurors a warning that they were likely to find a lot of this offensive. And it really was ugly. The prosecutor said that Travis McMichael, who was the shooter, repeatedly used the N-word and other words that describe Black people as being something less than human. She said there will be testimony that Greg McMichael, who's a former county investigator, had ranted about Black people being nothing but trouble and posted memes on social media that supported vigilantism, suggesting that it's somehow better to have a loaded gun than to call police. She also said that the third defendant, "Roddie" Bryan, had also used the N-word and other slurs in one instance after learning that his daughter was dating a Black man.

NADWORNY: Ahmaud Arbery's family has consistently attended the court proceedings related to his death. They were there for the murder trial and now this federal hate crimes trial. How did they react to what was said in court today?

ELLIOTT: Yeah. Both his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and father, Marcus Arbery, said it was just really hard evidence that's tough to hear. But they say they're prepared and are determined to see it through. Barbara Arnwine of the Transformative Justice Coalition stood with Marcus Arbery outside the courthouse today and talked about the need to get this evidence of racism out in the open, no matter how brutal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BARBARA ARNWINE: We are looking for the truth. I mean, there's going to be evidence finally introduced into the public arena that we never heard that we've heard rumors of, that we've heard inklings of, that we've heard references to. But finally, we're going to actually hear the real evidence for itself, its own unadulterated self. That's what we want to hear.

MARCUS ARBERY: And that we want the world to hear, too.

ELLIOTT: You hear Marcus Arbery there saying that's what we want the world to hear, what was behind his son's murder.

NADWORNY: What about the defense? How will lawyers for the three men make their case?

ELLIOTT: All three of the defense attorneys made clear they're not defending racism, and they denounced the language that was used, calling it everything from coarse to pathetic. They acknowledge that Arbery's killing was tragic but say their clients didn't chase him down because he was a Black man, but because, quote, "he was the man" who had been seen going into a house under construction at night and that that had the neighborhood on edge. Testimony in this trial will begin tomorrow.

NADWORNY: NPR's Debbie Elliott, thanks.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.