EXPLAINER: Why Arbery slaying video will be ‘star witness’
BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — It’s hard to overstate the importance of the video recording of Ahmaud Arbery’s death and the evidentiary weight that the short, sometimes shaky clip will carry at the trial of the three men who chased and shot him.
“You’ve got a cellphone video as your star witness,” said Jeffrey Abramson, a law professor at the University of Texas, “and a relatively small community where virtually everyone has seen or heard about the video.”
In fact, without the video, it’s possible there would have been no criminal charges, and thus no trial, in the 25-year-old Black man’s slaying on Feb. 23, 2020. Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, were initially questioned and released by police and remained free for more than two months after Arbery was shot on a residential street.
In early May 2020, a radio station in their hometown of Brunswick on the coast of Georgia obtained the video and posted it online. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp called the video “absolutely horrific” and urged the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to get involved. Its agents rapidly arrested both McMichaels and Bryan.
The three defendants’ joint trial on charges of murder and other crimes is expected to begin this week. The judge and attorneys planned to seat a final jury Wednesday after spending more than two weeks questioning potential jurors. At the trial, defense attorneys are expected to argue the video doesn’t show a murder, but rather a shooting justified by self-defense.
WHAT DOES THE VIDEO SHOW?
The video was taken by Bryan from the driver’s seat of his pickup truck as he followed Arbery, who can be seen running alongside a residential street in the Satilla Shores subdivision.
Two versions have been included in the case’s public court file. The first, at one minute and 43 seconds long, largely shows nothing but a blacked out screen, as if the phone was recording while lying on a seat or other surface. The second clip features the last 36 seconds of the longer version, starting as Arbery approaches the McMichaels’ truck as it sits parked in the road.
Greg McMichael is in the truck’s bed, holding a handgun. Travis McMichael stands by the open driver’s side door armed with a shotgun.
The video shows Arbery run around the truck’s passenger side to the right before he cuts back in front of it. Then a gunshot sounds, and Arbery is shown grappling with Travis McMichael for the gun, followed by a second shot. Arbery can be seen punching Travis McMichael, who then fires a third shot at point-blank range. Arbery staggers and falls face down in the street.
WHAT’S NOT CLEAR IN THE VIDEO?
The video doesn’t show the moment when Arbery and Travis McMichael first come into contact, with the truck blocking the view until the first gunshot sounds.
They come into view off the driver’s side of the truck, grappling with each other, and then are out of the frame again and can’t be seen when the second shot gets fired.
HAVE THE JURORS ALREADY SEEN THE CLIP?
The video of the shooting has been widely shared on news sites and social media platforms. The vast majority of the more then 100 potential jurors interviewed by the trial judge and attorneys since jury selection began have said they saw it at least once.
Some said they have watched the clip multiple times.
“I don’t know if I can set the video aside — it’s pretty burnt into my memory,” said one potential juror, identified in court only as No. 475. “But any opinions I could set aside.”
He and many others who watched the video have been deemed by the judge to be fair-minded enough to remain in the pool from which a final jury will be chosen. That’s because those potential jurors all said they could be impartial and decide the trial based on the courtroom evidence.
Defense attorneys have pushed to dismiss some who expressed strong reactions to the video. They include No. 5, who had harsh words for Bryan because he recorded the shooting.
“His videotaping the scene was disgusting and vicious,” the woman said. “However, at the same time I’m thankful that he did, because we are able to see what happened. But still very sad.”
Bryan’s attorney argued No. 5 shouldn’t be allowed on the jury. Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley dismissed her, largely because of concerns that she’s a single parent of a young child.
Not everybody in the jury pool watched the video. “I didn’t want to see somebody get killed,” No. 170 told attorneys. No. 219 said she started to play the clip but couldn’t finish it. And No. 402 said he never viewed it because “I didn’t need to. A thousand people around me were telling me what they’d seen.”
IF JURORS HAVE SEEN THE VIDEO, IS THAT A PROBLEM?
During the first two weeks of jury selection, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski brushed aside defense attorneys’ concerns that potential jurors who were horrified by the video can’t be impartial and should be dismissed from the pool.
“I don’t know if I’d want a juror who doesn’t have an emotional response to watching a video of someone being killed,” Dunikoski said. She also argued that a prospective juror’s exposure to the clip was “irrelevant because he’s going to be shown that video repeatedly during this trial.”
Abramson, the University of Texas law professor, said pretrial exposure to the video isn’t automatic grounds for dismissing potential jurors but should still serve as a warning to the judge that the person may have formed strong opinions.
“When you have what appears to be highly incriminating evidence and there’s been a period of time where it went viral, people not only saw it but talked about it and shared opinions with family and friends,” Abramson said. “The mere fact they’re going to see it again is hardly enough to undo whatever settled damage it’s done already.”