Defence attorneys hired by the two white men in Georgia accused of pursuing and killing a black man say their clients have been vilified and caution against a rush to judgment in a case that has drawn national attention and an outcry over its handling.
Gregory and Travis McMichael, a father and son, are charged with aggravated assault and felony murder in the February 23 death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. The case drew national attention and outrage after a video of Arbery's final moments surfaced online last week. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called in to take over the seemingly stalled investigation and the McMichaels were arrested less than 48 hours later.
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Laura and Frank Hogue, a husband and wife criminal defence team based in Macon, said they have been hired to represent 64-year-old Gregory McMichael.
"So often the public accepts a narrative driven by an incomplete set of facts, one that vilifies a good person, based on a rush to judgment, which has happened in this case," Laura Hogue said in a statement released Thursday.
Travis McMichael, 34, has hired Decatur-based attorneys Bob Rubin and Jason Sheffield. They said in a news release that their client has been vilified and also urged people not to judge too quickly.
"Travis McMichael has honourably served his country for over a decade," Sheffield said in the release. "He is a caring community member and a loving father, son, and friend. We must be responsible with the facts of this case and be careful not to compound the tragedy. The truth in the case will exonerate Travis."
Both defence teams said they plan to schedule a preliminary hearing soon, where more of the truth will be revealed.
Three of the four newly hired attorneys are recent past presidents of the Georgia Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and one is the group's current vice-president. All four are experienced criminal defence attorneys.
Less than two weeks before Arbery was shot, Travis McMichael sounded on edge the night of February 11 when he called 911 to report a possible trespasser inside a house under construction in his subdivision.
"We've had a string of burglaries," Travis McMichael says on the 911 recording. "I was leaving the neighbourhood and I just caught a guy running into a house being built two houses down from me."
Asked for a description, he says: "It's a black male, red shirt and white shorts." Calling from inside his truck, he sounds out of breath. The 911 operator asks: "Are you okay?"
"Yeah, it just startled me," Travis McMichael replied. "When I turned around and saw him and backed up, he reached into his pocket and ran into the house. So I don't know if he's armed or not. But he looked like, he was acting like he was. So be mindful of that."
He said he had never seen the person before in the neighbourhood.
"But we've been having a lot of burglaries and break-ins around here," Travis McMichael said on the 911 call. "I had a pistol stolen Jan. 1, actually."
An attorney for the owner of the home being built, Larry English, released security camera video that briefly shows a man walk through the open-framed structure. It's unknown if that man is Arbery.
Attorneys for Arbery's family have said a man shown on security video inside the same house-in-progress February 23 was Arbery — and that the footage shows him committing no crimes. Arbery was killed soon after when the McMichaels spotted him running past their home.
The more than two months that passed before the McMichaels were arrested and the fact that it didn't happen until after the video of the shooting became public caused many to draw parallels to other shootings of black men by white men in recent years.
"While the death of Ahmaud Arbery is a tragedy, causing deep grief to his family — a tragedy that at first appears to many to fit into a terrible pattern in American life — this case does not fit that pattern. The full story, to be revealed in time, will tell the truth about this case," Frank Hogue said.
According to an incident report by Glynn County police, Gregory McMichael said he and his son armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after seeing him run down their street. Gregory McMichael told police he suspected Arbery was a burglar, and said he attacked Travis McMichael before he was shot in a struggle over the gun.
Arbery's mother said in an interview with AP on Wednesday that she has confidence in the investigation now that the GBI has taken it over from local police and the Cobb County district attorney has been called in as an independent prosecutor to handle it. She said she would like prosecutors to seek the death penalty.
— Associated Press writer Russ Bynum in Savannah, Ga., contributed reporting.