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Defense attorneys ask judge to allow Ahmaud Arbery’s past run-ins with the law into the trial

Attorneys representing the three White men accused of chasing and killing Ahmaud Arbery want to be allowed to tell a jury about Arbery’s past run-ins with the law during the upcoming trial.

Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, was fatally shot while on a jog in February 2020. Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan have been charged with murder in a state trial as well as federal hate crimes charges.

In a pre-trial hearing Wednesday, attorneys argued to introduce evidence Arbery’s criminal convictions as well as confrontations he had with law enforcement over a seven-year span leading up to his killing in a coastal Georgia subdivision.

State prosecutors argued Arbery’s criminal record was in no way relevant to the actions the three men took that day, chasing him through the subdivision armed with guns and using pickup trucks.

The McMichaels told authorities they believed Arbery had burglarized a home under construction in their neighborhood and — using Georgia’s former citizens’ arrest law — were attempting to detain him for police on the day he was killed. The prosecution has denied Arbery took anything from the home under construction.

“You can’t claim self-defense when you started it,” Cobb District Attorney’s lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski responded.

The arguments in court

On the witness stand, Rod Ellis, the police chief of Glynn County Schools, testified Wednesday that Arbery brought a gun to a high school basketball game in 2013. Initially, Arbery fled when police attempted to stop him, but he was arrested after a brief chase. Arbery pleaded guilty in a negotiated plea and received five years’ probation.

Another officer testified to having arrested Arbery after attempting to shoplift a TV in 2017. Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, argued these incidents and others in which Arbery was not arrested indicated Arbery became agitated when confronted by authorities and would often try to flee, suggesting his actions reflected a pattern.

The defense then moved onto another controversial topic — questions about Arbery’s mental well-being — and said the information should be included as evidence.

The defense called a registered nurse who had evaluated Arbery’s mental condition during a single assessment at the end of 2018. In her testimony, she admitted she kept her diagnosis vague so that a more qualified person would give a more precise diagnosis.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told CNN she resented hearing the defense bring up her son’s past as though he were the one on trial. “Regardless of what we heard today, Ahmaud did not do anything wrong on February 23rd,” she said. “Nothing is going to surprise me coming from the defendants.”

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley ordered the information sealed and said he would review in private before deciding on whether to include either Arbery’s criminal history or his mental health as evidence.

Defense attorneys for the McMichaels also argued Thursday to prevent as many as 1,500 jailhouse phone calls made by the McMichaels’ from being used by the prosecution at trial.

A Glynn County Sheriff’s Office Deputy testified Thursday that all the telephone calls, with the exclusion of calls to attorneys, are automatically recorded. The calling system in place at the Glynn County Detention Center notifies callers that phone conversations are recorded.

Walmsley said he would rule at a later date on what evidence would and would not be allowed at the trial.

Arbery killed on a jog

The three men were indicted on federal hate crime charges on April 28 and entered not guilty pleas to the charges on Tuesday. 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.

According to the federal prosecutors, 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.”

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.

The men remain in state custody.

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