Ahmaud Arbery’s mental health records cannot be used against him by defense lawyers for the three White men accused of killing the 25-year-old Black man, who was pursued and shot to death in February 2020 on a public street in the Satilla Shores community in southern Glynn County, a Superior Court judge ruled Friday.
In early September, the judge denied the attorneys’ earlier request to use Arbery’s police record in the defense of Travis McMichael, 35, Gregory McMichael, 65, and William Bryan, 52, the men who face charges of felony murder and false imprisonment. The trial begins Oct. 18 in Glynn County with jury selection. Superior Court Judge William R. Walmsley is presiding.
Defense attorneys earlier sought to share with the jury Arbery’s 2018 mental health records from Gateway Behavioral Services in Glynn County, arguing such records are vital to their claim of self-defense.
But Walmsley said the defense’s desire to present such records in open court does not override Arbery’s “mental health privilege.” Walmsley noted that the three men did not know Arbery and had no knowledge of his past prior to the deadly incident.
Travis McMichael shot the unarmed Arbery three times at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun on the Sunday afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020.
The bloody confrontation ended a pursuit of several minutes, which began when Gregory McMichael saw Arbery run past the McMichaels’ residence on Satilla Drive. McMichael grabbed a .357 Magnum handgun and Travis McMichael grabbed the shotgun loaded with buckshot, then both men got in a pickup truck and pursued Arbery as he ran. Bryan saw Arbery run past his home with the McMichaels in pursuit and joined the chase in his pickup.
Bryan would use his cellphone to record the bloody conclusion near Holmes Road and Satilla Drive, a video that sparked national outrage and cries of racial injustice when it went viral online in May 2020.
In his ruling, Walsmley concluded “the defendants did not know the victim and had not experienced any prior provocative contact with Arbery.”
Walmsley further described the validity of Gateway’s mental health evaluation of Arbery as “questionable.” He noted that the evaluation was performed by a registered nurse with no formal training in mental health. Its findings were reached during one visit to Gateway, with no follow-up.
“The introduction of the victim’s medical records would tend to create confusion for the jury as to whether it was the Defendants’ actions on February 23, 2020, or the victim’s questionable mental health diagnosis that is to be considered,” wrote Walmsley, a Chatham County judge who was assigned to the trial.
After being pursued through the neighborhood, during which Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents say the defendants repeatedly blocked his escape, Arbery closed on the armed Travis McMichael in front of the McMichaels’ pickup truck.
Walmsley said the medical records were more likely to confuse and prejudice the jury than clarify the case of self-defense the defense plans to present.
“There is no evidence that the victim was suffering from any mental health issue … on February 23, 2020,” the judge wrote.
The McMichaels and Bryan also face federal hate crimes charges, including inference of rights and attempted kidnapping.
The McMichaels also are charged in the federal indictment with using a firearm in a crime of violence. Travis McMichael additionally faces a charge of discharging a firearm in a crime of violence.
That trial is set to begin with jury selection Feb. 7 at the U.S. Federal Courthouse in Brunswick.