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A 2nd trial is about to begin in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A second trial gets underway today in the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man. Three white men have already been sentenced to life in prison by the state of Georgia for chasing Arbery down with pickup trucks and killing him as he ran through their neighborhood just outside of Brunswick. His killing has been likened to a modern-day lynching, and the federal hate crimes trial centers on whether the killing was racially motivated. Jury selection begins today. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now. Debbie, first tell us how the hate crimes case differs from the state trial last year that resulted in those murder convictions.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan, are facing federal charges that they violated Arbery's civil rights and that they targeted him because of his race, because he was Black. The state murder conviction last year did not address motive. This case will.

MARTINEZ: OK. So what kind of evidence is expected to come out during this trial?

ELLIOTT: You know, investigators have said they will testify that they found evidence of racial animus on the defendants' cellphone messages and in social media posts. For instance, Travis McMichael allegedly used racial slurs. He linked Black people to criminal behavior, and he supported a vigilante-like response to that. I talked with Bobby Henderson, a civil rights activist in Brunswick, and he told me that all of that needs to come to the surface here.

BOBBY HENDERSON: The determining factor as to why they gave chase to Ahmaud was that he was Black. It was their motivation, why they felt he was not supposed to be in the neighborhood in the first place. And it's important that people understand that those things were the motivation so that they can begin to really interrogate their own biases.

ELLIOTT: Henderson sees this hate crimes trial as part of the larger racial reckoning that's been underway since the killings in 2020 of Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

MARTINEZ: I know last week it appeared that the McMichaels were willing to plead guilty and admit they had targeted Arbery because he was Black. What happened?

ELLIOTT: Well, they said they'd reached a plea deal with federal prosecutors, but it fell apart when the judge rejected the deal. Part of that would have allowed the McMichaels to spend 30 years in federal custody before finishing out their life sentence in a Georgia prison. Arbery's family had objected to that. They were quite upset about it. They said it was not fair to give their son's murderers the option of better conditions in federal prison. So the McMichaels stuck with their not-guilty pleas. The question now, as jury selection is starting today, is whether potential jurors will be affected. You know, this got a lot of media attention, so people know that these men had been willing to admit racial motivation before the trial.

MARTINEZ: OK, but with these men already sentenced, I mean, why also pursue a federal hate crimes case?

ELLIOTT: That's a question I put to former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. He's a former head of the civil rights division at the Justice Department. Historically, he says, federal prosecutions like this were a backstop, a way to, like, seek justice if a state or local prosecutor did not go after such crimes. Today, Patrick says, it's more about taking a national stand against racist behavior.

DEVAL PATRICK: In the most egregious examples, even if there has been a conviction in a state court, there's a national interest in there being federal consequences. And I think this is one of those cases.

ELLIOTT: Now, we should note that two years ago, the state of Georgia did not have a state hate crimes law that would have applied here. The public outcry over Arbery's murder changed that.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, thanks a lot.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.