The “leaked” video of three white men in trucks chasing Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old unarmed black man, along a country road in Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020, looks like something out of an old movie.
Indeed, Ahmaud’s mother says it looks like a “lynching movie.” These three men have been charged with murder and the media has already convicted them. It doesn’t help their defense that during the incident, they looked like they could have come out of central casting to fit the stereotype of “backcountry racist men from the Old South.”
So, it’s somewhat surprising to discover that their actual background doesn’t quite match all the preconceived notions that many have of them.
Greg McMichael is the one who put the chase in motion after seeing Arbery trespassing in a neighbor’s house under construction. Greg, assuming Arbery was the burglar who had been breaking into homes and vehicles in their area, grabbed his gun and called to his son, Travis McMichael, to come along. William ‘Roddie’ Bryan saw this and jumped in his truck to follow them and record the chase on his cell phone.
It’s this video that ultimately got all of them arrested, though they had leaked it on social media to prove their innocence. The video, which has been compared to the George Floyd and Rodney King videos, shows the confrontation between Ahmaud and Travis. But, unlike these prior cases that were more clear-cut, this video is like a Rorschach test — you see it differently, depending upon whose side you’re already on.
So why did these men impulsively give chase and end up behind bars? Did their underlying Southern roots, and feelings expressed in racist texts and posts, get the better of them? Or was it something related to their manhood? Or both?
Gregory McMichael, 65, has been married to Allison for 37 years. An R.N., she took the stand at her husband and son’s bond hearings, looking as wholesome as a Georgia peach pie. Greg’s career in law enforcement (police officer and D.A.’s investigator) spanned nearly 40 years — and he never shot anyone.
In 2018, he led an investigation that resulted in Arbery’s parole being revoked. Greg suffered two heart attacks, a stroke, a total hip replacement, and went into bankruptcy because of medical bills. In February 2019, he was suspended for failing to take mandatory training, had his firearm taken away and lost his powers to arrest people in a professional law enforcement capacity. He retired a few months later, undoubtedly feeling extremely depressed and emasculated. His neighbors gave him back some sense of importance when they relied upon him to keep them safe during the crime wave that had them all on edge. So, when Greg saw Arbery, who had already been captured on home surveillance, he sprung into action – unconsciously seeing this as his ‘Superman’ moment.
Making a Citizen’s Arrest would be a way to reclaim his manhood. He was expecting to be seen as a hero when he called 911, not expecting Arbery to be killed.
Travis McMichael, 34, is an unmarried dad of a 4-year-old son. When he and his ex-girlfriend broke up, he had to share custody, and seeing his son only half of the time was painful. After high school, Travis enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, where his assignments primarily entailed law enforcement and search and rescue.
At the time of the Arbery incident, he was working for a private company, for which he obtained federal security clearance. Tucked away amongst his possessions are countless commendations, good conduct awards and letters of gratitude for lives he saved — from the child who almost drowned at Camp Courage to families stranded in sinking boats.
When his dad called to him to pursue Arbery, Travis was already primed. Just weeks before, someone had stolen his gun from his truck, and just days before, he’d called 911 because he saw a man in the same house under construction where Arbery had been.
Like his dad, Travis had also had recent blows to his masculinity because of the breakup with the mother of his child, which meant returning to live with his parents and being deprived of living full-time with his son, who meant everything to him. So, he, too, was eager to reassert his manhood by “saving” Satilla Shores.
WILLIAM ‘RODDIE’ BRYAN
William ‘Roddie’ Bryan, 50, is more of a mystery. He portrays himself simply as a “concerned citizen” doing his patriotic duty by trying to protect his neighborhood from a thief. He’s described as a mechanic with a high school education and a fan of NASCAR and rock ‘n’ roll.
He was engaged at the time of the shooting, though his current marital status is unknown. He has two children. After the Arbery shooting, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation began investigating him for child abuse/molestation. The woman who made the complaint has since asked that they not pursue it, but the current status is vague.
According to Georgia's “Stand Your Ground” law,a person can use deadly force to defend themselves if they believe it is necessary to prevent their own death or injury. Since parts of the altercation and struggle for the shotgun are blocked on video, it can — and will — be argued both ways. Arbery was entitled to defend himself from his pursuers, as was Travis, if Arbery struck him first. Travis shot Arbery three times. He was bleeding but still alive when officers arrived at the scene, yet they wasted time questioning the men instead of trying to save Arbery.
The defense will also rely on Georgia’s Citizen’s Arrest law, a Civil War-era law that allowed private citizens to detain people who they believe are breaking the law. After Arbery’s death, the law was changed.
Jury selection exposed deep problems — some admitting preconceived notions, mostly of racial bias. Can they really set these notions aside? There have already been protests on behalf of Arbery and organizers are promising numbers that will make the Floyd demonstration look like a small huddle. If defense attorneys don’t obtain a change of venue, or if the jury is not sequestered, it will be hard to get a fair verdict for this complex case — a verdict that is decided upon by following the rules of law rather than one’s unconscious emotions.
Carole Lieberman, M.D., M.P.H., is a Board Certified Beverly Hills Forensic Psychiatrist/Expert Witness who has worked on hundreds of criminal (and civil) cases. She’s a bestselling/award-winning author and her upcoming book, Murder By TV: A Descent Into Madness, is the story of the Jenny Jones Talk Show Murder for which she was the defense psychiatrist. Dr. Lieberman is an Emmy-honored News-Talk commentator. She’s appeared on Oprah, Today, Good Morning America, CNN, FOX, HLN, ABC, CBS, NBC, Court TV, Law and Crime and many more. She was trained in Forensic Psychiatry at NYU-Bellevue. (www.expertwitnessforensicpsychiatrist.com)