The three white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 shared racist, violent posts and messages dating back years and often used slurs to describe Black people, FBI intelligence analyst Amy Vaughan testified in federal court on Wednesday.
Convicted of state murder charges and sentenced to life in prison, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan, are now facing a federal hate crimes trial in which prosecutors have set out to prove that racism was central to their killing of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was jogging in their Georgia neighborhood.
Vaughan, who processed digital evidence in the case, told the court about Travis McMichael's texts to his friends that showed an extensive history of racist and violent comments against Black people.
Travis repeatedly advocated for violence against Black people in posts online — often saying he would carry out those actions himself — and frequently used the n-word to refer to Black people in text conversations, Vaughan said.
In one text to a friend, he expressed happiness at leaving the Coast Guard and getting a new job, writing, "Love it, zero niggers work with me."
He sent a video to a friend on Facebook Messenger that showed a Black child dancing, set to a song called "Alabama Nigger" by a white supremacist music artist, Vaughan told the jury.
On a video showing a group of mostly Black teenagers attacking a white teen, Travis McMichael commented, "I say shoot all of them." He once described a Black Lives Matter protest as a "zoo." In response to an article about two Black people assaulting two white people, he called the Black people "subhuman savages" and said he "would beat those monkeys to death."
Bryan also frequently denigrated Black people, and for several years on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, exchanged racist text messages about Black people, according to Vaughan. Days before the men killed Arbery, Bryan expressed anger over his daughter dating a Black man, calling him the n-word and "monkey."
Vaughan said investigators could not break through the encryption on Greg McMichael's phone, and that he posted less on social media than his son. But officials found memes the 66-year-old shared on Facebook, including one that compared enslaved Irish people to other enslaved groups, saying, "When was the last time you heard an Irishman bitching about how the world owes them a living?"
The focus on the three men's history of racism in the hate crimes trial stands in contrast to the state trial, in which there was hardly any mention of race as a motivating factor for the crime.
"It’s not illegal to use racial slurs," federal prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein told jurors in her opening statement Monday. "But these slurs can provide you with evidence as to why a defendant did what he did."
Defense attorneys for the three men argued that they were motivated by fear about their neighborhood's security and not because of his race, and that they were acting on suspicion that Arbery had committed a crime.
The McMichaels' attorneys said that though their clients had expressed abhorrently racist opinions, they were not illegal. Travis McMichael's lawyer, Amy Lee Copeland, said she could not deny that he had used racial slurs, but asked jurors to consider if his racist comments were linked to specific actions. Bryan's attorney, J. Pete Theodocion, argued Monday that his client was not motivated by racism when he decided to join the McMichaels in pursuing Arbery.
Arbery's death was among the high-profile cases of Black people being killed in 2020 that sparked an international reckoning on race and policing that year. Murder charges against the McMichaels and Bryan were only brought months after Arbery was killed, following national outrage when footage of the shooting was released.