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Georgia Today: Reporter reflects on the Ahmaud Arbery trial and where Brunswick goes from here
On this week's Georgia Today podcast, we explore the emotional toll surrounding the Brunswick trial of the three men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery. During the trial, says Larry Hobbs from the Brunswick News, "Marcus Arbery and Wanda Cooper-Jones were the faces of courage — to see these images of their son over and over again, to hear what the defense said about their son — this was a grueling episode for them." After the guilty verdicts in the long-awaited trial, where do Brunswick and Glynn County go from here?
Steve Fennessy: Welcome to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. This week on the podcast, we speak with a journalist who's reported on the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and its aftermath longer than anyone else: Brunswick News reporter Larry Hobbs. Larry's been a guest on this podcast before. He has since covered every twist and turn of the Arbery investigation and the highly anticipated trial, which culminated last week in guilty verdicts for all three defendants: Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan. The men were accused of chasing and fatally shooting 25-year-old Arbery in February 2020 as he jogged in a neighborhood just outside Brunswick.
[News tape] Arbery's family says he was out for a jog Feb. 23, but 64-year-old Gregory McMichael and his son Travis told police Arbery was a burglar and chased him.
Steve Fennessy: We first spoke about this, you and I, on the show about 18 months ago, which was about four months after Ahmaud Arbery's death. The case finally went to trial in early November. So tell us, what were those 18 months like for the 85,000 residents of Glynn County as they waited for this trial of Travis and Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan to finally begin?
Larry Hobbs: The discussion of the McMichael-Bryan trial came up a lot. The biggest example of how much this touched the community was our clerk of court — Ron Adams, clerk of Superior Court, sent out a thousand jury summonses and literally it was a two-and-a-half-week ordeal to pick a jury. And everybody knew about this. Everybody had an opinion.
Steve Fennessy: And so, as the trial kicked off, as the jury was finally impaneled early November and opening arguments began, what was it like?
Larry Hobbs: This was a very graphic, very grueling trial. There was a video screen up throughout most of the trial showing evidence, and a lot of it was graphic. Ghastly.
Steve Fennessy: The video that — that Roddie Bryan shot the day that the killing occurred.
Larry Hobbs: You know, that's just one of them. The police body cam footage immediately after was shown, and I don't know how many people have seen that. I know I saw it. It's pretty tough to watch, too. And of course, when the Georgia Bureau Investigations coroner — lead coroner came in, he showed the pictures of Ahmaud’s body during the autopsy. And that was — words escape me. It was tough, and I know it had to be tough on the Arberys. Marcus Aubrey got up and left, went out into the lobby when the coroner was there.
Steve Fennessy: Marcus Arbery being Ahmaud's father.
Larry Hobbs: And Wanda Cooper Jones, his mom, stayed in, but she just kept her eyes covered.
Steve Fennessy: Eleven of the 12 jurors were white, and this is in a county that's roughly 26% black. So as you sat there towards the beginning of the trial for opening arguments, what impact did you think that that particular jury makeup might have in terms of an eventual verdict?
Larry Hobbs: You got to think here in the deep South and Southern gothic: Here we go again. And the judge said, you know, he was certain that the — the defense finagled it to get that jury.
[News tape] News4Jax: Attorneys are going back and forth on the potential jurors, which the state has complained to the court were struck by the defense from the final panel because solely of their race: 11 black jurors were struck from what would have been the final pool.
Larry Hobbs: And the judge said “it is what it is. We start trial tomorrow.”
Steve Fennessy: And Linda Dunikoski was the Cobb County prosecutor who was brought in to actually prosecute this case because of all the issues with prosecutorial conflicts of interest in Glynn County.
Larry Hobbs: Yes, sir.
[News tape] MSNBC: Greg McMichael, the father of Travis McMichael, who was in that first pickup truck, is a former investigator for the DA's office here in Brunswick County. He's also a former police officer. The first — the DA here in Brunswick County, recuses themselves. Then the case went to Waycross Circuit District Court, and the attorney there recused himself, but not before he writes a letter that says the actions were perfectly quote, “perfectly legal.” It was at that point that the case went to a 17-year veteran of the Cobb County DA's office, Linda Dunikoski. That's how she ended up taking the case.
Steve Fennessy: So the central argument of the defense, Larry, was Georgia’s citizen arrest law, which really is a vestige from slavery days that effectively allowed citizens — in practice, we're talking about white people, here — to deputize themselves, to capture escaped enslaved people. So in the wake of Arbery's killing, the state lawmakers vetoed the law. But because it was still in effect at the time of the killing, the McMichaels and Bryan were allowed to invoke it in their defense. We have three white men chasing down a — a Black jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, and attempting — or saying they're attempting to detain him because they suspect him of breaking into houses. So you would think — or at least I did, I mean — that race, because it was such a central part of the discussion around this killing would be a central part of the prosecution's case. But it really wasn't mentioned by the prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, really, until closing arguments. Did that surprise you? It surprised me.
Larry Hobbs: It did a little bit. I think she thought, though, that she could win this case, Just win a, you know, the verdict from the jury, just from the interpretation of the law. The law said, you had to be aware that a felony was going on. We have Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael on a body cam being told by Glynn County Police officer Robert Rasch. “No, he has not stolen anything.” The times he had — there were four times at that point — had gone in and been detected on this camera at 220 Satilla Shores, where this all begins. Greg McMichael told police, “You know, I don't know what he was doing, but he sure seemed like he was doing something. He was hauling a** past this house and running so fast that he must have done something wrong.”
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski questioning law enforcement officer: "What is the next question that you asked Greg McMichael?" "Did this guy break into a house today?" "And what did Greg McMichael say in response, from line eight to line 13?" "Well, that's just it. I don't know."
Larry Hobbs: They had no proof that he had committed a crime.
Steve Fennessy: Here's Linda Dunikoski cross-examining Travis McMichael.
Linda Dunikoski: "And at this point in time, when you first see him on Burford, he's not reaching into his pockets."
Travis McMichael: "No, ma'am. Not — no, ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "And he never yelled at you guys?"
Travis McMichael: "No, ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "Never threatened you at all?"
Travis McMichael: "No, ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "Never brandished any weapons?"
Travis McMichael: "Yeah, he did not threaten me verbally, no ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "All right. Didn't pull out any guns?"
Travis McMichael: "No, ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "Didn't pull out any knife?"
Travis McMichael: "No, ma'am."
Linda Dunikoski: "Never reached for anything, did he?"
Travis McMichael: "No."
Linda Dunikoski: “He just ran?"
Travis McMichael: "Yes, he was just running."
Larry Hobbs: It was there in the testimony. And I think Ms. Dunikoski said we don't have to bring up that this was a racial issue, that they simply did not meet the criteria even of the citizen's arrest law.
Steve Fennessy: And the house that we're talking about, 220 Satilla Shores, was a house that was under renovation. It was vacant, but it was kind of open because of the work going on in there. And Ahmaud Arbery was captured on a security cam several times walking through that house.
Larry Hobbs: And they show him, and that is all he does. He just — walking around, he's looking, you know. I know his uncle told me one time that in addition to working with his dad's landscaping company, he did a little construction work. So maybe he was just checking things out. We don't know what he's doing. We do know that he didn't steal anything. He didn't harm anything. He just walked around and left.
Steve Fennessy: There were a lot of dramatic moments, Larry. In this trial, we had Travis McMichael taking the stand in his own defense. And one of the most shocking — to me, anyway — was in closing arguments when a defense attorney, made some really startling comments about Ahmaud Arbery referencing his dirty toenails. And I remember seeing that and hearing an audible gasp in the courtroom,
Attorney Laura Hogue: Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores, in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.
Steve Fennessy: What were some of the moments that stuck out to you?
Larry Hobbs: The long, dirty toenails comment. Everybody just went, “Wow, really? She said that.” The going story was that she was trying to make a reference to that he was not a jogger, that he was in there for nefarious reasons because he had long, dirty toenails.
Attorney Laura Hogue: He was a recurring nighttime intruder, and that is frightening and unsettling.
Steve Fennessy: Let's turn to the verdict. The closing arguments were delivered on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and the jury was instructed by the judge to go start deliberations, and they didn't take maybe as long as some thought. What was your reaction to how soon they came back with a verdict and describe that scene?
Larry Hobbs: I had in my mind that there didn't seem to be a lot to deliberate. I actually think more than 10 hours was almost a little too long.
Steve Fennessy: When you say there wasn't a lot to deliberate, what do you mean?
Larry Hobbs: Linda Dunikoski made a fine job of presenting her case. I think the best thing the defense tried was putting Travis McMichael up on the stand with some well-rehearsed thoughts about law enforcement training that didn't hold up on cross-examination from Linda Dunikoski. I think she proved that Greg and Travis McMichael had no reason to believe that Ahmaud Arbery had committed a crime. Travis McMichael left his 5-year-old son in the living room of their house to grab a shotgun. Greg McMichael grabs a .357. They jump in a pickup truck and chase this man. They said, “We want to talk to you.” They've got guns in their hands. Linda Dunikoski says, “This is America. Nobody has to talk to somebody if they don't want to. He was not obliged to do that.”
Linda Dunikoski: "I mean, common sense tells you — you pull up in a truck on somebody who's like a pedestrian who's out for a jog, I mean, I don't know, are any of you runners? You ever had a strange truck pull up and have some people start yelling at you? All three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions. Not on facts, not on evidence — on assumptions that took a young man's life, and that is why we are here."
Larry Hobbs: The autopsy photos were certainly startling. Ahmaud's eyes were open. They showed the wounds. You can see what buckshot will do to a person. It just — the — the — the gunshot wounds were ghastly.
Steve Fennessy: Because this was at close range and this was a shotgun that Travis McMichael brought with him in the pursuit of Ahmaud Arbery.
Larry Hobbs: With deadly buckshot. I mean, buckshot is meant to kill large mammals. That's what it does. The effects of it at close range were — were devastating. He was shot twice, but the first shot shredded his right hand, his wrist and then went through the center of his abdomen just — to just below the chest. Sort of at the chest. The second shot missed. Now get this, and we sort of knew this, but it came out in the — in the trial. It struck — stray buckshot went through a neighbor's window and embedded into an interior wall. Then the third shot hit Ahmaud in his shoulder. The coroner testified that Ahmaud was basically dead with the first shot in the chest area. I mean, it was emotionally draining; you could just see it in the people around, you just happened to look at that, that photo.
Steve Fennessy: As you're sitting there day after day, you can't turn off your feelings. And so when you're seeing photos like the autopsy photos, when you're hearing testimony from the coroner about how Ahmaud Arbery died, what impact did that have on — on you as a person?
Larry Hobbs: This was the most emotionally draining thing I've ever done as a journalist. And let me preface by saying that I would say that they are — the parents, Mr. Marcus Arbery and Mrs. Wanda Cooper-Jones, were the faces of courage. I say this was emotionally draining for me. To see these images of their son over and over again and to hear what the defense said about their son, it was just a anguish and grief. This was a grueling episode for them.
Marcus Arbery: "When you see your baby kid going down like that, you just never imagine nothing like that will happen in this little town like this here. I just want everybody to know Ahmaud was a good young man, never was disrespectful. And all those men had to do was talk to him. But you don't go talking to no kid telling him you're going to blow his head off. They got nothing to say. Ahmaud was a young kid — 25 years old. He ain't even begin to live his life and they robbed him of his life."
Larry Hobbs: You know, this was six weeks of a trial. I saw the video when it came out. I took a couple of more looks at it. It is a stark — the killing, that's what it is, the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, regardless what the jury would have found. Travis McMichael killed Ahmaud Arbery with a shotgun loaded with buckshot. That video was played a dozen times, two dozen, it's etched in my mind. But seeing it over and over again didn't make it any easier to watch. This is a man getting killed right before your eyes.
Steve Fennessy: Where were you, Larry, when the verdict came in? Were you in the courtroom itself or were you in this holding area where other people were observing the trial?
Larry Hobbs: I was in the jury assembly room. I mean, this thing holds a couple of hundred people, and it was almost completely full.
Chatham County Superior Court Judge Timothy R. Walmlsley: In the Superior Court of Glynn County, state of Georgia. The State of Georgia vs. Travis McMichael, case number S.R. 000433.
Larry Hobbs: And it erupted in cheers when the malice murder was announced for Travis McMichael.
Crowd: Oh, Woo!
Timothy R. Walmlsley: I'm going to ask that whoever just made an outburst be removed from the court, please. If you feel like you need to make a comment or otherwise demonstrate with respect to the verdict, I do ask that you step out of the courtroom now.
Larry Hobbs: Judge Walmsley restored order. Everybody remained quiet for the remainder of the ratings.
Timothy R. Walmlsley: Count 2, felony murder: We, the jury, find the defendant, Travis McMichael, guilty. Count 3, felony murder: We, the jury, find the defendant, Travis McMichael, guilty. Count 4, felony murder: We the jury .... (fades)
Steve Fennessy: What the verdicts in Brunswick could mean going forward for this coastal community. That's next. This is Georgia Today.
Steve Fennessy: You're listening to Georgia Today. I'm Steve Fennessy. I'm joined by Larry Hobbs from the Brunswick News.
Steve Fennessy: I'm curious; kind of what you were looking for as those verdicts were read. Where was your attention?
Larry Hobbs: On the judge; I was looking around at the people around me and, basically, I was lookin’ at the front of my computer. Had my laptop there with me. I was focused, and “Guilty, guilty, guilty” was my lead. And that's what I wrote: that Linda Dunikoski had made her case. So I hit “Send;” I basically called my editor, said, “The story's there,” and then I went out into the lobby, where the first person I saw, Mr. Arbery, was already out there, Mr. Marcus Arbery. He was just crying with — it was certainly a moment of redemption for him.
Supporters after the trial: "Yeah, go on, Marcus, go on!"
Marcus Arbery: "Number one, I want to give all glory to God. Because that's who made all this possible. I want to thank all y'all people and all the support y'all gave us. We conquered that lynch mob!"
Larry Hobbs: It was just too much going on. A cacophony of people celebrating the verdict. There were hundreds, a thousand people out front.
Steve Fennessy: What was their reaction?
Larry Hobbs: Cheers. Tears. Prayers. And jubilation.
Wanda Cooper-Jones: "To tell you the truth, I never saw this day back in 2020. I never thought this day would come. But God is good. I want to tell everybody thank you. Thank you. For those who marched, those who prayed — most of all the ones who prayed. Thank you, God. And now — you know him as Ahmaud; I know him as Quez — he will now rest in peace. Thank you."
Larry Hobbs: I get to my car and an old buddy of mine, Charles Baldwin, he's a Black guy. We're — been friends for a long time, but just to run across him at that moment was was kind of wild. He just happened to be standing outside my car. He was driving by. He runs a landscaping company itself and he was driving by and decided to get out. And he'd just heard about it, and wanted to, you know, join whatever was going on over there. And it was just cool seeing him. We hugged each other and I said, “It's good to see you, Charles.” He's a Brunswick native, grew up around here, started out on the shrimp boats, down on the — on the East River in Brunswick. That was just a cool moment just to see Charles there.
Steve Fennessy: And what did he have to say about the verdict?
Larry Hobbs: “I knew they would get the verdict right.” He always calls me brother. He said “I knew they'd get the verdict right, brother. I knew this is what we were going to have.”
Steve Fennessy: Where does the community of Brunswick and Glynn County at large kind of go from here? What — do you see sort of tangible changes as a result of all this?
Larry Hobbs: We've always thought of ourselves as a pretty progressive community, and we are. A lot of us took a second look and wondered if we've done enough. I think we're taking some of that to heart. I hope we're a better community. I hope this is — if nothing else, this tragedy, as has brought us closer together.
Steve Fennessy: Well, you know that — that brings up a great question. This is one case, right? This trial happened during the Kyle Rittenhouse trial when he was acquitted, and so we have this conviction. And so what does this mean for race relations in the South? What does it mean politically or culturally for where we go from here?
Larry Hobbs: I sure hope it means we — we move forward and that this is the 21st century and that we're not carrying as much of that baggage with us into this, this next century. It's about time. I'm a Southerner all my life and proud of being a Southerner. I love this place. It's — it's exotic, it's strange and it's beautiful. And in times of reckoning, we've always come up short, it seems, especially my demographic. So many times — so many times — the South, says one thing, but does another. This time, we did pretty much what everybody's saying we wanted to do and what was supposed to be the right thing. Mayor Cornell Harvey, the Brunswick mayor — Brunswick's first Black mayor — he's finishing up his second term. He's like one of the first people I saw, and I went and shook hands with him. And he said, “Larry, we proved to America that you can get justice in a small Southern town.” And he said, “We proved justice is colorblind.”
[News tape] Mayor of Brunswick Cornell Harvey, ABC News: "Now, we are angry. Yes, we are angry. We are hurting. Yes, we are hurting because something bad has happened here. However, you know, we still have to look for the greater good. We have to also show that we trust justice will be — will be served. We trust the fact that the laws in America are not tainted against anyone. Together, we can do things better and I really believe that, and I believe the people in Brunswick are really trying to say that, too."
Larry Hobbs: I'll tell you what I did say to Mayor Harvey. I said, “Mayor, my people finally didn't let your people down.” And he said, “It's OK, man,” because I was getting a little emotional. And he said, “It's OK, man, I know, I know. And I hope we've learned something from this that will stick with us.”
Steve Fennessy: I've been speaking with Larry Hobbs from the Brunswick News. A sentencing date has not yet been set for the McMichaels and Bryan. Their convictions in the trial could put them behind bars for life. The men also face federal hate crimes and kidnapping charges and an upcoming multi-million-dollar civil lawsuit brought by Arbery's mother. That suit also alleges that some law enforcement officials and local prosecutors were involved in a coverup during the investigation into Ahmaud Arbery’s death. Georgia Today is a production of Georgia Public Broadcasting. Jess Mador’s our producer; our engineers are Jesse Nighswonger and Jake Cooke. You can keep up with Georgia Today by subscribing to the show at GPB.org or anywhere you get podcasts. Thanks for listening. See you next week!