By Katie McLaughlin
SAVANNAH, Ga. (Court TV) — In a blow to the defense for the men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Georgia judge has ruled that recordings of Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan’s jailhouse phone calls will not be excluded at trial. Those conversations could have a big impact on this already high-profile case.
Jury selection is set to begin Monday, October 18, in the murder trial of the three men. The video at the center of the case, recorded by Bryan on February 23, 2020, shows 25-year-old Arbery jogging down the street just before he’s chased down and shot by the defendants.
The prosecution contends Arbery was the victim of a racially-motivated crime. The defense, however, maintains that Bryan, Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael (Gregory’s son) were attempting to make a citizen’s arrest when they shot Arbery in self-defense.
In one jailhouse phone call, Gregory McMichael tells his brother, “I have been filleted and laid out as a sacrificial lamb. It’s… it’s all political.”
Gregory goes on to ask is brother, “You’ve heard the old saying that no good deed goes unpunished?”
His brother relies, “That’s a shining example right there.”
In the recording of a phone call between Gregory and his wife, Leigh McMichael, Gregory becomes angry as he discusses their daughter’s social media posts — one of which showed a photograph of Arbery’s dead body lying in the road.
Several phone calls made by Travis McMichael from jail were to his best friend, Zack Langford. Langford testified on the McMichaels’ behalf during their bond hearing. In calls between Travis and Zack, Travis talks about wanting to be released on bond so that he can raise his son.
In phone calls between Travis and his mother, Leigh McMichael (wife of Gregory), Leigh can be heard preparing her son for how high-profile the case will be, likening it to an O.J. Simpson-level media frenzy.
“Oh my God,” replies Travis.
“But that’s a good thing,” says Leigh, “because they’re gonna see facts that’s not there that they haven’t seen.”
In another phone call, Gregory says he did a “good deed.” The defense says prosecutors will argue that the good deed their client had in mind was the killing of Arbery. But in a motion, they contend that Gregory was referring to his “attempt to conduct a private person’s arrest” of Arbery as the good deed; so that police could investigate whether Arbery was responsible for a string of neighborhood burglaries.
The defense had been hoping for a sweeping ruling from the court saying that no jail calls would be allowed to come in. They used multiple arguments to plead their case: violation of an expectation of privacy under the fourth amendment, violation of their clients’ right to due process, spousal privilege attached to conversations between Greg and Leigh, and that it was a violation of equal protection because there was no way the McMichaels could have known that phone calls could be used to punish them.
In his ruling, the judge stated: “The Defendants received repeated warnings that the calls would be monitored and recorded. They have a logically lowered expectation of privacy in prison. And the Defendants consented to the Detention Center’s policy by using the phone system accordingly, there is no reason to think the phone calls could not be used at trial just like any other lawfully discovered evidence.”
The judge went on to state that Gregory McMichael’s “decision to proceed with the conversations, despite notification that the conversations were being recorded and were subject to monitoring, is no different from Defendant electing to proceed with conversations notwithstanding the known presence of a third party within earshot of a conversation with his wife. Consequently, Defendant waived the spousal privilege.”
We do not yet know which calls, if any, the prosecution may want to use at trial; but during the bond hearing, they brought up ones they believed showed that the defendants were trying to obstruct justice. For example, in the phone call during which Gregory said he did a “good deed,” the prosecution could argue that statement proves motive.
Court TV is already on the ground in Brunswick, Georgia providing updates, and will be covering the trial, gavel-to-gavel, until the verdict comes down.
Court TV’ legal correspondent Julia Jenaé and assignment editor Tiffany Smith contributed to this report.