Video Evidence Played Key Role in Arbery Murder Trial

The ubiquity of footage from bystanders and police officers has elevated videos to the center of many recent trials.,


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In the Arbery killing trial, video evidence once again played a crucial role.

Nov. 24, 2021, 4:49 p.m. ET

Nov. 24, 2021, 4:49 p.m. ET

William Bryan, one of the defendants in the Arbery killing trial, watched himself on a police body camera video while his defense attorney Kevin Gough presented a closing statement to the jury on Monday.Credit…Pool photo by Stephen B. Morton

Hours before 12 jurors found three men guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, they had a request for the judge. They asked to see the video of Mr. Arbery’s killing again, three more times.

The graphic cellphone video of the killing, filmed by William Bryan as he pursued Mr. Arbery in his truck, brought the world’s attention to the case in the months after the incident.

It sparked nationwide protest and prompted the State Legislature to make significant changes to Georgia criminal law, including passage of the state’s first hate crimes statute. It propelled the indictment of the former county district attorney on charges including that she directed police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael, who shot Mr. Arbery.

And ultimately, the video appeared to play a crucial role in the jury’s decision on Wednesday to convict Mr. Bryan, along with Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, of murder.

“The defendant’s own video shows that Mr. Arbery wasn’t armed, that he was jogging,” said Sarah Gerwig-Moore, a professor at Mercer University School of Law in Macon, Ga. “It shows that he was fighting for his life.”

The ubiquity of cellphone videos from bystanders and body camera videos from police officers has elevated video evidence to the center of many recent trials, often superseding other ways of convincing juries, including witness testimony and lawyers’ arguments.

“We lawyers, we don’t have a lock on the story anymore,” said Mary Fan, a professor of law at the University of Washington and a former prosecutor. “It doesn’t matter how dramatically I do my openings or closing or how my witnesses tell their accounts, because the jury is going to look at the visual evidence and my words are just going to be words. I can never match the drama of a video.”

In the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, which ended in a decision of not guilty just days before the verdict in the Arbery killing case, the defense’s argument centered on bystander videos of the moments before the first shooting. That footage appeared to show that Mr. Rittenhouse was chased into a parking lot by Joseph Rosenbaum, the first man he shot and killed, which defense lawyers said supported their argument that Mr. Rittenhouse had acted reasonably in self-defense.

It was a cellphone video of George Floyd’s death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer — captured and uploaded to Facebook by a then 17-year-old bystander — that ignited international protests over racism and police violence. The video was critical in the trial that found the former officer, Derek Chauvin, guilty on two counts of murder.

Some legal experts said that videos offer objectivity, especially when compared with testimony, which can be unreliable.

Understand the Killing of Ahmaud Arbery

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The shooting. On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed after being chased by three white men while jogging near his home on the outskirts of Brunswick, Ga. The slaying of Mr. Arbery was captured in a graphic video that was widely viewed by the public.

The victim. Mr. Arbery was a former high school football standout and an avid jogger. At the time of his death, he was living with his mother outside the small coastal city in Southern Georgia.

The fallout. The release of the video of the shooting sparked nationwide protests and prompted Georgia lawmakers to make significant changes to the state’s criminal law, including passage of the state’s first hate crimes statute.

The suspects. Three white men — Gregory McMichael, 67, his 35-year-old son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — stood accused of murdering Mr. Arbery. They told authorities they suspected Mr. Arbery of committing a series of break-ins.

The verdict. On Nov. 24, a jury found the three defendants guilty of murder and other charges. The men, who face sentences of up to life in prison, have also been indicted on separate federal charges and are expected to stand trial for those in February.

“What you are doing in a trial is you are trying to put the jury in that time, that place and in those circumstances that the witness is testifying about,” Melissa Redmon, assistant professor at the University of Georgia School of Law, said. “When you have a visual aid to do that, it makes it just much easier.”

But as video evidence plays an increasingly bigger role in jury deliberations, some experts warn that it can be prone to some of the same vulnerabilities as other forms of evidence.

“When we see video, it has this kind of seductive way of making us think, ‘Hey, I’ve seen what happened,'” Ms. Fan said. But just as with other types of evidence, it can fail to capture the full picture. Depending on a person’s prior background, she added, that same footage leads our eyes to “follow different details, we notice different things, amplify different things,” leading juries to fill in the gaps in the story “in very different ways.”

Jack Rice, a criminal defense attorney based in St. Paul, Minn., said the outcome of a case often comes down to which side’s lawyers can lead the jury to view the video in a way that is favorable to their argument.

“The undeniable nature of video means that if you can turn it to support your narrative, it could very well make your narrative undeniable,” he said. “From an advocacy standpoint, that is magnificent. You can’t ask for more than that.”

Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.

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