SAVANNAH, Ga. – Ahmaud Arbery’s mental health records can’t be used as trial evidence by the white men who chased and killed the 25-year-old Black man as he was running in their neighborhood, a Georgia judge ruled Friday.
The decision by Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley further limits defense attorneys’ efforts to portray Arbery as an aggressive young man with a troubled past when the case goes to trial soon, with jury selection scheduled to start Oct. 18.
The judge ruled that Arbery's medical privacy, even in death, trumped the rights of the men standing trial to a robust defense. And he concluded that a registered nurse's "highly questionable diagnosis” that Arbery suffered from mental illness during his first and only visit to a mental health services provider in 2018 could unfairly prejudice a trial jury.
“There is no evidence that the victim was suffering from any mental health issue, or had otherwise decompensated, on February 23, 2020,” the date Arbery was killed, the judge's ruling said.
Prosecutors say Arbery was merely jogging on that date when father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck in their neighborhood just outside the port city of Brunswick, about 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Savannah.
A neighbor who joined the chase, William “Roddie” Bryan, took cellphone video that showed Travis McMichael fatally shooting Arbery as he threw punches and grabbed for McMichael's shotgun. Arbery was unarmed when he was killed by three shotgun blasts at close range.
The McMichaels and Bryan were arrested and charged with murder after the video was leaked online more than two months later, on May 5. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case the next day and swiftly arrested all three men.
Defense attorneys argue the McMichaels and Bryan committed no crimes. They say the McMichaels suspected Arbery was a burglar after he was recorded by video cameras inside a home under construction. Travis McMichael’s lawyers say he shot Arbery in self-defense.
Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, said by email that despite the judge's ruling Friday, he's confident “that the full truth will come out over the course of trial and that the jury will see this case is simply about protecting one’s neighbors and oneself.”
One of Bryan's lawyers, Kevin Gough, said he appreciated the care and research that went into the judge's decision, but disagreed with the result.
“However, we anticipate that the court will reconsider its ruling in whole or in part in the weeks to come,” Gough said by email.
A month ago, the judge dealt another setback to the defendants when he ruled that evidence of Arbery’s past run-ins with law enforcement, including two arrests, was also off-limits.
Defense attorneys hoped to cast doubt on prosecutors’ contention that Arbery was an innocent jogger and to bolster their argument that the white men reasonably suspected Arbery had committed a crime when they chased him.
Prosecutors argued that defense lawyers were seeking to put Arbery on trial by making his criminal record and mental health part of the case. None of the three defendants knew Arbery, or anything about his past, prior to the shooting.