Judge blocks defense effort in Ahmaud Arbery murder trial

Glynn County Detention Center via AP

It’s been more than a year and a half since Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Georgia, but we’re finally coming down to the final weeks before the trials of Gregory and Travis McMichael, as well as William “Roddie” Bryan. The past few weeks have focused on a number of procedural requests from both the prosecution and the defense that Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley has had to consider and rule on. The latest came on Friday when Walmsley had to determine whether or not to allow the defense to introduce testimony related to Arbery’s mental health records. The defense had sought to offer information that would depict Arbery as a “troubled” young man with mental imbalance issues who was prone to aggressive behavior. The judge didn’t buy the argument and ruled that the records could not be introduced, saying that the victim’s medical privacy – even after his death – was a more pressing concern than any benefit for the jury that might come from revealing the information. (NBC News)

Ahmaud Arbery’s mental health records can’t be used as trial evidence by the white men who chased and killed the 25-year-old Black man as he was running in their neighborhood, a Georgia judge ruled Friday.

The decision by Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley further limits defense attorneys’ efforts to portray Arbery as an aggressive young man with a troubled past when the case goes to trial soon, with jury selection scheduled to start Oct. 18.

The judge ruled that Arbery’s medical privacy, even in death, trumped the right of the men standing trial to a robust defense.

The “records” that Arbery had mental issues have been disputed from the beginning of this process. Despite the best efforts of the defense, there are apparently no records of Ahmaud Arbery ever having been treated by a psychologist or psychiatrist for mental illness. The only diagnosis they could provide comes from the opinion of a registered nurse who treated him for unrelated issues at some point.

This was the second major blow dealt to the defense in two months. The judge previously ruled that Arbery’s prior criminal record also couldn’t be introduced. Of course, two teenage arrests, one for shoplifting and one for carrying a gun onto his former high school campus, didn’t really add up to that much of a record anyway.

That’s not to say that Arbery hadn’t had some run-ins with the law and a history of violations. He did. But the case being mounted by the attorneys for the three men facing charges seem to make those matters mostly irrelevant. They are arguing that Arbery had previously been suspected of a burglary in the neighborhood and that he had been seen entering a house under construction prior to his fatal encounter with the McMichaels and Bryan. (No stolen goods were found on Arbery.)

But even if he had ripped off some power tools from the construction site, chasing him down and confronting him at gunpoint was never the correct approach when none of the men were actively serving law enforcement officials at the time. All they needed to do was call the cops and keep track of Arbery’s location until they arrived. Also, whether Arbery was out jogging for exercise or fleeing the scene of some supposed crime (as the defense seeks to prove) seems equally irrelevant for the same reasons.

The one possible argument that the defense will likely make that could possibly succeed would probably run along the following lines. Even though both of the McMichaels were armed when they caught up with Arbery, they never intended to shoot him. They only planned to use the weapons to intimidate him into compliance while they waited for the police to arrive. But when Arbery rushed at Travis McMichael, apparently attempting to take the shotgun away from him, he feared for his life and fired. (Travis has never claimed the gun went off accidentally, so that line of defense is probably out the window.) Would the jury buy that or would they believe that the McMichaels placed themselves in danger by confronting him the way that they did? That’s a tough call to make.

Even with these setbacks from the judge, however, I’m still not sure that any of the men will be convicted of murder. Every indication we’ve had from local reporters suggests that the McMichael family remains very popular and influential in that area. Can the prosecution even find a full jury that would be willing to convict even if the prosecution’s case is rock solid? Color be skeptical at best.