Ahmaud Arbery video: Legal experts break down how key frames may be used in murder trial

Editor's note: Jury selection for the murder trial of the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery is set to begin Oct. 18. This story was originally published May 13, 2020, and has been updated. Get caught up on the latest news here. 

The video of the fatal encounter lasts less than a minute.

Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, is seen running down the street. He crosses in front of a truck with two white men holding guns and a struggle ensues. Three gunshots are fired, Arbery begins to run away and falls to the ground.

The video, taken by a neighbor and subsequently released by a Georgia attorney, shows a brief yet starkly violent encounter, and legal experts say key moments in the video will be used by both sides in the case to explain the men's actions.

Research shows that rewatching violent videos can traumatize viewers and lead to negative mental health effects. To help readers understand what happens in the video without having to view it multiple times, USA TODAY spoke with two law professors in Georgia who analyzed the footage in a legal context.

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The importance of the video

Video of Arbery's fatal shooting on Feb. 23, 2020, and the subsequent handling of the case sparked a national outcry as family and advocates say he was ruthlessly gunned down by vigilantes while out on a jog near his Georgia home.

The video "really catalyzed and placed this whole case into the public consciousness," said Ronald L. Carlson, the Fuller E. Callaway Chair of Law Emeritus at the University of Georgia School of Law.

Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael, who were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault – more than two months after the death – told police they thought Arbery was a burglary suspect in their neighborhood when they pursued him. Gregory McMichael said Arbery attacked his son.

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The approach

In the initial frames of the video filmed by Travis McMichael's neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan, Arbery comes into view as the car from which the video is filmed rounds a left corner behind him. Arbery is seen jogging on the street in the Satilla Shores neighborhood as he approaches a white pickup truck. Two men, Travis, 34, and Gregory McMichael, 64, are seen standing next to the open driver-side door of the truck and in the bed, respectively.

Gregory McMichael later told police that he and his son grabbed guns when they saw Arbery running in the neighborhood because they believed he matched the description of a burglary suspect in the area and they weren't sure whether Arbery was armed.

Police records do not show break-ins or burglaries in the neighborhood from January to Feb. 23, but WAGA-TV reported three thefts were reported about two months before the shooting.

A later memo by a district attorney who previously led the investigation said the McMichaels were openly carrying their firearms when they confronted Arbery.

Carlson said these initial frames are crucial to the video because it can provide some perspective into the scene as it appeared to Arbery as he approached the truck.

"The thing that will stand out is the scene as it appeared to the jogger: A man standing up with a firearm in the back of a pickup truck," said Carlson. "That must have looked a bit jarring and bizarre."

Sarah Gerwig-Moore, associate dean for academic affairs at Mercer University School of Law, said the video shows the men "boxing" in Arbery, which, taken with the evidence of them grabbing firearms beforehand, could help carry the murder charge.

In Georgia, Gerwig-Moore explained, there are not "degrees" in murder charges. A prosecutor would need to prove that the killing occurred with malice, "either express or implied," or while committing another felony.

The prosecution could argue the way the McMichaels "organized" and "coordinated" the shooting by trying to stop Arbery in the middle of the road could classify as implied malice, Gerwig-Moore said, as Georgia law does not require the same stringent level of premeditation required in some other states. Killing someone, regardless of intention, while committing another felony can also be grounds for a murder charge in Georgia, Gerwig-Moore said.

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The camera

The initial frames of the video end as Bryan repositions the camera. As Bryan drives closer to the truck where the McMichaels are, his camera begins to dip below the dashboard of his vehicle, obstructing the view of Arbery and the McMichaels.

Arbery and the McMichaels come in and out of view, and Arbery is seen crossing over from the left side of the road to the passenger side of the truck. The McMichaels are seen still standing in their positions next to the driver-side door and in the bed of the truck.

Bryan was later arrested in connection with the case and in June 2020, the three men were indicted on state charges of felony murder and malice murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and one count of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.

They also face federal hate crime charges and a wrongful death civil lawsuit from Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones.


Lee Merritt, an attorney representing Arbery's family, has said this section of the video implicates Bryan as the sound of a firearm being cocked can be heard.

"As Mr. Byran gets closer, his camera takes a dip as if he's reaching for something in the passenger seat, and you hear what my experts tell me is the sound of a round being chambered and then the camera returns," Merritt told USA TODAY.

Gregory McMichael told police that Bryan was involved in following Arbery before the events on the video, saying Bryan "attempted to block him, which was unsuccessful," and the memo from the district attorney previously looking into the case said Bryan joined the father and son in "hot pursuit" of Arbery.

Merritt called Bryan a "willing participant of this ambush."

Kevin Gough, Bryan's attorney, has said his client did nothing wrong, was not armed during the incident and was just a witness to a crime.

"Roddie is a family man, NASCAR fan, and enjoys rock and roll. He is not now, and never has been, a 'vigilante,'" Gough said in the statement. 

Carlson, who said he was Gough's professor at University of Georgia, said it will be hard to prove the sounds from the vehicle are definitively a gun cocking.

"That sound may at the end of the day be attributed to something, but I don't think it will be provable that Bryan had a gun," Carlson said.

The struggle

The struggle between Arbery and Travis McMichael begins after the camera refocuses on the truck and Arbery is seen crossing in front of the vehicle from the passenger side.

A gunshot is heard, but the truck blocks the view of how the men first engage each other.

As the struggle quickly comes into view, Arbery and Travis McMichael both have their hands on the firearm that McMichael had been holding.

Carlson said this moment in the video is where the McMichael's defense team could build on their narrative of self defense. Gregory McMichael later told police he and his son shouted to Arbery to stop.

Arbery family attorneys:Additional video shows Georgia jogger Ahmaud Arbery did nothing illegal before being killed

The defense attorney may argue that "Arbery was ordered to stop, but instead of doing that, he grabbed the gun and commenced what they say is a violent attack," Carlson said.

But Gerwig-Moore said the self-defense argument may hold little weight in a legal setting as Georgia law does not allow for a self-defense defense when the person carrying out the shooting initiated the encounter.

"A struggle over the gun does not establish self defense," Gerwig-Moore said. The McMichaels brought the guns into the incident, and she said they initiated the encounter by first approaching Arbery with the firearms.

"He tried to disarm them really because that was his only hope of survival," Gerwig-Moore said. "In a fight or flight scenario, he chose to fight for his life."

However, the memo by Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George E. Barnhill says the encounter did justify self-defense as "Arbery initiated the fight, at the point Arbery grabbed the shotgun."

The gunshots

The struggle goes out of view to the left side of the camera as Gregory McMichael is seen in the back of the pickup truck apparently aiming a gun. After a second shot is heard, the struggle comes back into scene.

It's these moments missing from the view of the camera that Carlson says both sides can use to "inject their own narrative."

Arbery's family's attorney and the prosecution can say he was "trying to get McMichael disarmed, and the other side will say (Arbery) was really pounding away while off camera," Carlson said.

Arbery can be seen throwing punches, and the video shows the gun angled upward toward Arbery as he appears to land a punch on Travis McMichael's head.

In an unedited version of the video reviewed by USA TODAY, a third gunshot is heard before McMichael steps backward, and Arbery appears to be hit.

All three shots sound similar, indicating they're coming from the same firearm, Carlson said.

An autopsy report released by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation confirms Arbery was shot twice in the chest and a third bullet grazed his right wrist. The report says Arbery sustained the gunshot wounds "during a struggle for the shotgun." Barnhill's memo also says all three shots came from the shotgun during the struggle.

Unedited video then shows McMichael continue to step back and to the right as Arbery takes a few steps forward, away from the men, and soon falls to the ground. Gregory McMichael hops from the bed of the truck and the two men move toward Arbery, on the ground, as the video ends.

"It's such a tragic appearing conclusion to this episode," Carlson said. "That part will be, in my view, emotionally damaging in the defense."

Contributing: Nicquel Terry Ellis and Grace Hauck

Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller