By JULIA JACOBO, ABC News
(NEW YORK) — A Georgia judge heard arguments Thursday on whether to release two men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot while jogging in February.
Arbery, 25, was killed in Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23. He tried to run for his life before he was struck by a car, shot and then called a racial slur by one of the suspects, according to prosecutors.
Chatham County Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley heard testimony from several witnesses for Travis McMichael, 34, and his father, Gregory McMichael, 64, who described them as upstanding members of community. But prosecutors presented evidence of texts and social media posts by the suspects in an effort to show how racism likely played a large role in Arbery’s death.
Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael each have been charged with felony murder and aggravated assault. William Bryan, a third suspect, has been charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. All three men have pleaded not guilty.
Their defense attorneys have requested that the judge reject the malice murder charge included in their indictment, saying that “charges two crimes in one count.”
The posts contained information from racial groups and posts about vigilanteism, as well as a “violent video” called “Coon on a Highway,” according to the prosecutors.
Zachary Langford, a childhood friend of Travis McMichael, testified that he was “always respectful” and “got along with everyone,” even those of different backgrounds. When asked by Cobb County Deputy Chief Assistant District Attorney Jesse Evans about a text exchange between the two in which they allegedly discussed shooting a black person with gold teeth, Langford said they were “being facetious” and “referring to a raccoon.”
Last month, prosecutors filed a notice of intent to use the “racial” texts and posts, which included a text Travis McMichael sent on March 16 and two “racial” posts on Facebook on June 15 and Aug. 22 — the latter of which was a highway video. It also included “racial” Facebook posts by Gregory McMichael and “racial” text messages extracted from the phone of Bryan, according to court documents.
In a previous bond hearing for Bryan, Evans said Bryan repeatedly used the n-word in texts. Bryan took cellphone video of the shooting and told authorities he heard Travis McMichael say a racial slur when he shot Arbery three times.
During Thursday’s hearing, defense attorneys for the McMichaels denied that the posts and texts were “hateful thoughts,” saying they “are thoughts we might differ with.”
An attorney for Greg McMichael conceded that one post on his Facebook page by Identity Dixie, which said to “stop letting strangers lecture you about your ancestors,” linked to a hate group. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Identity Dixie is a “small Facebook campaign predicated on keeping Confederate monuments.”
Witnesses for Travis McMichael included his mother, Lee McMichael, and four friends who agreed to offer their property as collateral for his bond, nearly $400,000.
Lee McMichael testified that she did not believe her son would leave because he values his relationship with his 4-year-old son, whom he saw every other week prior to his arrest, and his ties to his community.
“Travis will go nowhere, because he loves home, he loves his son, he will stand up to his responsibility, and he wants his day in court,” Lee McMichael said.
Both Langford and his wife, Ashley Langford, testified that Travis McMichael felt remorse after Arbery’s death. They and other friends described him as the fun guy in their social circle who often was making jokes.
Lee McMichael also testified for her husband, as did a family friend and the landlord for the home they rent in Brunswick, Georgia. They said they’re willing to put up about $300,000 in collateral for George McMichael’s bond.
Lee McMichael described her husband as a dedicated father and grandfather, presenting his service to the community as a retired investigator for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit district attorney’s office and a former Glynn County police officer as evidence that he isn’t a flight risk.
Arbery’s parents appeared in court. A victim impact statement read for Marcus Arbery read that he “suffered the deepest loss” a father could endure and that he “urged the court to reject the motion and continue to keep the defendant behind bars.”
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, took the stand and said that the suspects are “proud of what they’ve done” and would do so again if given the opportunity.
“I have suffered,” she said. “I continue to suffer mentally and emotionally while I wait for justice for my son.”
Cooper Jones asked the court to help her fight for justice for her son and protect her grandchildren by keeping the McMichaels behind bars.
Walmsley didn’t decide whether to grant bail, and the hearing will continue on Friday.
Both McMichaels and Bryan told authorities they thought Arbery was a suspect in a series of break-ins. They were charged in May after video showing the deadly struggle appeared online and have been in custody ever since. An earlier request to grant them bond was denied in May.