Ahmaud Arbery’s mental health records cannot be used as evidence at trial, a Georgia judge ruled on Friday, amid concerns about jury bias.
Defense attorneys for the white men who pursued and killed the 25-year-old black man as he ran through their neighborhood tried to portray Arbery as an aggressive young man with a troubled past during the trial, but the ruling imposed more limits.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley ruled that a “highly questionable diagnosis” from a registered nurse that Arbery suffered from a mental illness during his first and only visit to a mental health service provider in 2018 could unfairly prejudice a jury.
“There is no evidence that the victim suffered from a mental health problem or had otherwise decompensated on February 23, 2020,” when Arbery was killed, according to Walmsley’s ruling.
The case will soon be judged, with jury selection set to begin on October 18.
For more Associated Press reporting, see below:
The judge ruled that Arbery’s medical confidentiality, even in the event of his death, outweighed the rights of the men on trial to a strong defense.
Prosecutors said Arbery was just jogging on that date when father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael armed themselves and chased Arbery in a van to their neighborhood just outside the port town of Brunswick, in approximately 112 kilometers south of Savannah.
A neighbor who joined the chase, William “Roddie” Bryan, took a cell phone video that showed Travis McMichael fatally shooting Arbery as he threw punches and grabbed McMichael’s shotgun. Arbery was unarmed when he was killed by three shots from a shotgun at close range.
The McMichaels and Bryans were arrested and charged with murder after the video leaked online more than two months later on May 5. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case the next day and quickly arrested the three men.
Defense attorneys argued that the McMichaels and Bryans had committed no crime. They said the McMichaels suspected Arbery of being a burglar after being recorded by video cameras inside a house under construction. Lawyers for Travis McMichael said he shot Arbery in self-defense.
Lawyers for the two McMichaels did not immediately respond to phone and email messages seeking comment.
One of Bryan’s attorneys, Kevin Gough, said he appreciated the care and research that went into the judge’s ruling, but disagreed with the outcome.
“However, we expect the court to reconsider its decision in whole or in part in the coming weeks,” Gough said via email.
A month ago, the judge inflicted another setback on the defendants when he ruled that evidence of Arbery’s past run-ins with law enforcement, including two arrests, was also prohibited.
Defense attorneys were hoping to cast doubt on prosecutors’ claim that Arbery was an innocent jogger and support their argument that the white men reasonably suspected Arbery of having committed a crime when they pursued him.
Prosecutors have argued that defense attorneys seek to bring Arbery to justice by making his criminal record and sanity part of the case. None of the three defendants knew Arbery, or anything from his past, before the shooting.