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Federal trial will focus on whether race was a motive in Ahmaud Arbery's death


Jury selection is underway in the hate crimes trial of the white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery while he was jogging two years ago. The defendants have already been convicted of murder after a state trial in Georgia. This new federal trial will focus directly on whether race was a motive in the death of Arbery, who was Black. NPR's Carrie Johnson is following the story. Hi, Carrie.


SHAPIRO: Very few of these federal hate crime cases ever make their way into a courtroom. How did this case get this far?

JOHNSON: Gregory and Travis McMichael had actually tried to plead guilty to these federal hate crimes charges this year, but the Arbery family objected to the terms of the deal, and the judge rejected the plea. So now it seems they're headed to a jury trial. Justin Hansford, a law professor at Howard University, thinks that's a good thing.

JUSTIN HANSFORD: There's a need for a reckoning and a discussion that is not whitewashed, that is not colorblind, that does not try to ignore the racial element to the case.

JOHNSON: Hansford says there is a lot of evidence that never came in during the state trial about whether Travis McMichael, the man who shot Arbery, used racial slurs in text messages and on social media. And Hansford says he thinks it's important for a full airing of the role that race may have played in Arbery's death.

SHAPIRO: What's the Justice Department saying about why it decided to proceed with federal charges in this case?

JOHNSON: Prosecutors didn't want to talk about a pending case about to go to trial. But in general, DOJ officials bring cases where there's some kind of national interest. And there has been intense interest in the Arbery case for two years now. Justin Hansford of Howard Law explains.

HANSFORD: When someone is targeted because of their race or religion, there's a greater harm than simply the harm to that person or their family. You also are sending shock waves of fear throughout the community.

JOHNSON: Hansford says he's a young Black man who likes to go for runs. And he worried after hearing about what happened to Arbery and so did his mom.

SHAPIRO: Carrie, let's talk about the context that this trial is happening in. Over the last few weeks, historically Black colleges and universities, including Howard University here in Washington, have been targeted by bomb threats. What's the latest with the investigation there?

JOHNSON: I checked in with the FBI today. They say this investigation is a high priority. Twenty field offices around the country are involved. These threats are being investigated as racially motivated hate crimes by the Joint Terrorism Task Forces. No explosives have been found at any of the schools, and no public charges have emerged yet.

SHAPIRO: The FBI is pretty open about the fact that many more hate crimes occur than are ever reported to authorities. Can you tell us about the efforts to make it easier to report those crimes?

JOHNSON: Sure. I spoke with Manju Kulkarni, founder of the group Stop AAPI Hate. The number of hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders is on the rise. But she says many people don't want to go to the FBI. She wants to see federal officials do more to make information available to people in different languages and make clear to those people they won't be turned over to immigration authorities if they report hate crimes. DOJ says it's doing some of that and wants to beef up its operations to help defuse tensions in communities.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.