The killing of George Floyd catalyzed a period of national soul-searching about race and racism. In high-profile trials since then — including in the murders of Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery, prosecutors have avoided putting racism itself on center stage. Now, federal prosecutors are trying to prove that the white men who killed Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, committed a federal hate crime when they chased and killed him “because of Arbery’s race and color,” as the indictment says. Prosecutors are likely to feature ugly evidence, culled from seized cellphones and other sources, seeking to prove that Travis McMichael, 36, his father, Gregory, 66, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 harbored racist views before the afternoon in 2020 when they gave chase to Arbery in Georgia.
In a potential preview of the evidence, an FBI agent testified at a Jan. 31 hearing that Travis McMichael’s text message history and social media posts include instances of his calling Black people “monkeys” and “savages,” and contain “evidence where the defendant expressed desires for crimes to be committed against African Americans.” Racism alone isn’t a crime; experts say that prosecutors must convince a jury that it motivated the men to pursue and harm Arbery. The defendants have said that they pursued Arbery because they suspected him of break-ins in their neighborhood. “This is going to be a difficult case to prove,” said Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts who headed the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division under President Clinton. “It doesn’t mean the case isn’t there to be made.” Hate crimes are particularly hard to prove. Between 2005 and 2019, the Justice Department pursued just 17 percent of suspected hate crime cases for prosecution. When it does decide to prosecute, the cases usually end with defendants pleading guilty. In the Arbery case, a judge last month rejected a proposed plea deal between federal prosecutors and the McMichaels after Arbery’s family members objected.