Feb 17, 2022 - Podcasts

Prosecuting racism in Georgia

A federal hate crimes trial is underway in Brunswick, Georgia, where Ahmaud Arbery was murdered almost two years ago. The central question in the trial is whether race was the motivating factor for the three white men who killed Arbery, who was Black. But how can prosecutors prove racism?

  • Plus, a reality check on the state of COVID around the world.
  • And, American women are racking up our Olympic medals.

Guests: Criminal defense attorney Page Pate, and Axios' Tina Reed.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

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NIALA: Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Thursday, February 17th. I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s what you need to know today: a reality check on the state of COVID around the world. Plus, American women are racking up our Olympic medals.

But first, today’s One Big Thing: Prosecuting racism in Georgia.

A federal hate crimes trial is underway in Brunswick, Georgia where Ahmaud Arbery was murdered almost two years ago. The central question in the trial is whether race was the motivating factor for the three white men who killed Arbery, who was Black.

But how can prosecutors prove racism?

Page Pate is a criminal defense attorney in Brunswick and is here now with his takeaways from the first few days of the trial.

Hi Page, thank you for being with us.

PAGE PATE: Absolutely happy to join you.

NIALA: I think the first question is people might remember that these men were already sentenced to life in prison by the state in November. Why is there a second trial?

PAGE: The federal government has charged these three individuals with different crimes: Federal hate crimes, attempted kidnapping and for the McMichaels using a firearm in commission of a federal crime. Even though it's the same incident, the death of Ahmaud Arbery, those charges are different from the state murder charges and other felonies that they were tried on back in state court.

NIALA: So how hard is it for federal prosecutors to make an argument for racism? How do you prove that?

PAGE: Well, it can be very difficult. The law that they're using to prosecute these individuals was originally written to go after KKK-type racial violence. I mean, church burnings, things that were clearly not just motivated by race, but intended to send a message about race. That's not what happened here as far as sending a message. We don't have the same clear indication that race was the point of this entire incident, but what the federal government does have, and apparently has a lot are text-type discussions between these defendants and other people. They have social media posts, especially from Travis McMichael that clearly show racism. So it's kind of a two-part process: first prove that they have this racial animus, this racial hatred, and then prove that it was that hatred that led them to do what they did to Ahmaud Arbery.

NIALA: What are we expecting federal prosecutors to make the case for today? Would it be that second part of what you talked about?

PAGE: Perhaps, although we may hear some more of the type of racial prejudice, evidence that we heard yesterday, remember so far, the testimony has come in primarily through an FBI agent who reviewed those social media accounts, and other digital devices. We heard a little bit from friends of these individuals. Once that has been introduced, I think we'll go back to what actually happened on the day Ahmaud Arbery was killed. Again, we don't have the type of direct evidence that this was racially motivated where there was a message left, you know, some social media posts that specifically said “I killed Ahmaud Arbery because he was Black.” But the jury is free to use what they believe was in the heart and minds of these individuals when they committed the act and then make that conclusion on their own.

NIALA: What’s the defense arguing here?

PAGE: Nothing so far. And that's not necessarily a bad strategy. There was no way for them to try to dispute the social media posts and so I think trying to cross examine those witnesses would have just emphasized that evidence for the jury. So I think the only strategy that the defense can have in a case like this is to sit back and wait, and then argue at the end of the case “These folks may be racist. They certainly killed Ahmaud Arbery, but the government hasn't proven that critical element that they did it because of their racism or that they would not have killed Ahmaud if he was white, Hispanic, or some other race as he was running through the neighborhood that day.” So it may be a defense of “you didn't prove your case” more than “we've got a different story to tell.”

NIALA: Is this prosecution, however, a novel way to think about prosecuting hate crimes which traditionally have been very complicated to prosecute and prove?

PAGE: I think it's a very important case for the Department of Justice. They have clearly made prosecuting hate crimes a priority in this administration. In the past you would not see a prosecution like this if the defendants had already been convicted of a serious charge, like murder in state court, because they're only going to have one life. I mean, you can only give them effectively one life sentence. They're going to die in prison. So why tack on an additional life sentence? What's the point of that? Well, the point of that is to prosecute these cases, to send a message that this type of behavior is not going to be tolerated. It's going to have repercussions beyond this case. At least I think that is the motivation for the Department of Justice here.

NIALA: Page Pate is a criminal defense attorney based in Brunswick, Georgia. Page, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

PAGE: Thank you. I enjoyed it.

[ad break]

NIALA: In 15 seconds: are we finally at a turning point in the pandemic?

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today! I’m Niala Boodhoo. Cases of COVID in the U.S. are declining, and many states are responding by loosening or ending mask and vaccine mandates. But around the world, it's not uniformly good news. Axios’ healthcare editor Tina Reed has the latest COVID reality check for us. Tina, what trends are you seeing in COVID case counts around the world?

TINA REED: So as you know, Omicron was so transmissible that we just saw it spread like wildfire across the globe. And then that was followed by an uptick in hospitalizations and deaths in many parts of the world. So the good news is we have been seeing cases fall. But, um, in many places, the numbers are still pretty high. And death rates are still pretty high. So in Western Europe, we've seen a lot of restrictions starting to be lifted, in particular places like Germany, the U.K., the Netherlands. In some places where we have started seeing cases come down, such as France, Spain and Japan it’s not yet clear if deaths are starting to come down quite yet. One place that is still hotspot is Hong Kong

NIALA: Can you share what the numbers look like in the U.S. when we're thinking about death totals?

TINA: So in the U.S., we're still seeing really high numbers. 2300 people a day. Now that is down. So that's good news. But, you know, when you start thinking 2300 people a day are still losing their lives in the United States from COVID, that puts it into perspective, I think.

NIALA: I think people might be surprised to learn that death rates are still high because we know that Omicron has been a milder version of the coronavirus.

TINA: The best way to think about that is that even though the rate of people getting hospitalized is lower than previous variants, it is so transmissible that there's just a huge number of people who are getting sick. And so it's just a numbers game at that point.

NIALA: That said, we are seeing mask and vaccine mandates lift. How do you think we should understand this moment in the pandemic? Because it feels like we're acting like this is the beginning of the end.

TINA: Yes. So I've talked to a lot of experts about this who have been really, really cautious in talking about this. You think about other points of the pandemic where we started to unmask, where we started to unwind restrictions. And then a new variant pops out. So we've been here before, you know, something could happen. COVID could surprise us yet again. And so I don't think it's time to declare an end to the pandemic.

NIALA: Tina Reed is Axios’ healthcare editor. Thanks, Tina.

TINA: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: U.S. women are racking up the hardware at the winter olympics in Beijing: As of last night here in the US, 13 of the 19 US medals so far have been won by women, even though they only make up less than half of Team USA’s athletes. That includes Kaillie [KAY-lee]Humphries and Elana [eh-LAH-nah] Meyers Taylor who went 1-2 in the first ever monobob competition and a gold by Erin Jackson, the first black woman to win in speed skating. Here she is on CNN:

ERIN JACKSON: I’m definitely happy to be a face that young girls or people of color can see, because I mean visibility is really important.

NIALA: Overall, the percentage of women at the olympic games has been steadily increasing, starting at just 4.3% at the first winter olympics in 1924 and reaching a record 45% this year in Beijing.

That’s all we’ve got for you today! Text me your feedback and story ideas: I’m at (202) 918-4893.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

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