BRUNSWICK, Ga. - Three Georgia men pleaded not guilty to federal hate crimes charges Tuesday in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot after being spotted running in a Brunswick, Georgia, neighborhood in February 2020.
Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan entered their pleas before a U.S. magistrate judge.
The men face multiple charges including interference with rights, a hate crime, after a grand jury indicted them in April in U.S. District Court. Charges also include brandishing a firearm during the commission of a crime of violence and attempted kidnapping.
"We know justice is closer," Marcus Arbery Sr., the slain man’s father, told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Brunswick. He said the Justice Department’s decision to prosecute his son’s death as a hate crime had been "a big relief."
Defense attorneys for the McMichaels and Bryan have insisted they committed no crimes. Lawyers for the McMichaels have said they chased Arbery because they suspected he was a burglar who had been recorded on video inside a nearby home under construction. They say Travis McMichael was fearing for his life when he shot Arbery as they grappled over a shotgun.
A Georgia judge has set a trial in the state’s case for October and will hear pretrial motions later this week.
Death of Ahmaud Arbery
Then 25-year-old Arbery was shot dead while running through a neighborhood near the coastal town of Brunswick, Georgia, in February 2020.
The father and son who pursued Arbery — Gregory and Travis McMichael — weren’t arrested or charged until the state took over the case more than two months after the shooting. A prosecutor initially assigned to the case had cited Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law to argue that the shooting was justified.
Video of the fatal encounter was recorded by William "Roddie" Bryan, a neighbor who joined the chase.
Civil rights groups demanded further investigation, saying the killing appeared to be racially motivated.
Suspects arrested months later
The McMichaels weren’t arrested and charged with murder until May 7, after state agents took over the case.
The arrests came days after a video of the shooting surfaced.
A judge denied bond for both men, who were charged with felony murder.
Days later, Bryan was arrested and charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Public outcry over Arbery's death
Arbery's death sparked protests calling for systematic change to a criminal justice system that charged suspects months after the incident took place.
There was still palpable outrage from Arbery's death when a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, leading to protests across the U.S. in the name of justice for victims such as Floyd and Arbery.
People across the state — where Arbery died, near his grave and in Atlanta at the state capitol — memorialized Arbery on the anniversary his death.
On Monday, Gov. Brian Kemp officially repealed Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law, used by the McMichaels attorneys as defense of their actions.
The state House and Senate passed the bill by overwhelming margins.
"I’m just very, very thankful," said Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother. "Unfortunately I had to lose my son in this manner, but with this bill being in place, I think it will protect young men as they’re jogging down the street."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Download the FOX 5 Atlanta app for breaking news and weather alerts.