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Racist, violent evidence presented in federal trial against Ahmaud Arbery's killers

There was a text message from Travis McMichael, complaining about Black people at a local restaurant. "Need to change the name from Cracker Barrel to N****r Bucket," he wrote.

There was a video, shared by McMichael on Facebook, of a Black boy dancing on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the original music cut out and swapped for the racist song "Alabama N****r" by Johnny Rebel. The music went on and on for an uncomfortably long time, the dehumanizing lyrics blasting through the courtroom like something from a blackface minstrel show.

A comment under a video of Black Lives Matter protesters, in which McMichael wished for a semiautomatic rifle in order to shoot the people he described as "goddamn monkeys," and another post advocating driving into a group of Black people with a vehicle.

Even a text conversation between McMichael and a friend about zoodles — that's noodles made of zucchini — involved the N-word.

"Is that the only evidence, or is there more?" asked the prosecutor.

"There was more," replied the witness, FBI agent Amy Vaughn.

Vaughn had analyzed the contents of cellphones and social media accounts for the government, building its case against McMichael; his father, Greg McMichael; and neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan, who are on trial for violating Ahmaud Arbery's civil rights when they chased him down a public street and shot him while he was out for a run on Feb. 23, 2020.

The three men were already convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison in a state trial last year. Now, federal prosecutors are trying to prove that the McMichaels and Bryan went after Arbery because of his race, violating his right to use a public street. In opening statements on Monday, prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein claimed that texts and social media evidence from the defendants would prove the government's case.

Investigators were unable to get Greg McMichael's cellphone records because of phone encryption but pointed out a few Facebook posts, including one status update that "a gun in hand is worth more than an entire police force on the phone."

McMichaels laughed about trespassing while hunting

Prosecutors also played a video of the father and son laughing about trespassing on private property while out hunting, chuckling that "there's private property and then there's private property, you know?"

The McMichaels have tried to defend their actions against Arbery as justified because Arbery was seen trespassing on private property — a home under construction in the neighborhood.

Bryan's text records show, according to Vaughn, "a pattern seen over several years" of making derogatory comments about Black people on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and WhatsApp messages about Bryan's daughter's new Black boyfriend, including a message in which his daughter writes passionately that race doesn't matter and begs her father for understanding.

"I've always told her this is the only thing I could not accept," Bryan texted a friend. One day after killing Arbery, Bryan texted the friend again, still about the falling-out with his daughter.

Lawyers for the defense briefly argued that some of the racist comments are taken out of context but declined an extensive cross-examination. In their opening statements, the defense lawyers admitted that all three men have said very racist things but racial slurs are not illegal.

"I'm not going to ask you to like Travis McMichael," attorney Amy Lee Copeland told the jurors, saying they should consider the evidence and still find him not guilty.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liz Baker
Liz Baker is a producer on NPR's National Desk based in Los Angeles, and is often on the road producing coverage of domestic breaking news stories.