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Can Ahmaud Arbery's Mental Health Diagnosis Be Used In Court To Defend His Alleged Murderers?

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Ahmaud Arbery

Attorneys representing the men charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery want access to mental health records they can use against Arbery in court. 

A judge in a pretrial hearing ruled that the records remain sealed for now but requested the defense attorneys make a case for why these records are relevant to the trial. After all, it's hard to imagine any way in which a victim's mental health would justify chasing him in a car, blocking his path and then shooting him, as video of the killing has shown.

Arbery was fatally shot by Gregory and Travis McMichael, who are father and son, and William Bryan in Georgia back in February 2020. Arbery was out for a jog in the Brunswick neighborhood where the accused killers lived.

The men armed themselves and chased Arbery down the street in their vehicles. Video footage recorded by Bryan shows the armed men yelling at Arbery while he ran, before they cut him off. Travis McMichael then engaged the unarmed Arbery in a brief physical interaction.

Three gunshots can be heard on the videobefore Arbery appears with blood on his torso, and stumbles and falls in the middle of the two-lane road.

It is widely speculated that Arbery’s death was racially motivated, though the men contend that they were patrolling their neighborhood and believed that Arbery was a burglar.

However, Bryan told police that Travis McMichael used a racial slur while Arbery lay dying in the street. 

Gregory and Travis McMichael, and William Bryan have been charged with murder in a state trial and were slapped with federal hate crimes charges, in addition to other charges.

Can Ahmaud Arbery’s mental health history be used against him in court?

Potentially, yes. If a judge allows the records to be unsealed and used as evidence, the defense attorneys may present them to the jury as a means of justifying the behavior of Bryan and the McMichaels. Theoretically, this could cause a judge or jurors to have reasonable doubt as to the motives of the defendants. 

Again, this is all theoretical. After all, the defense team will have to show that Arbery's medical records are relevant.

As of now, the judge has questioned the relevance of Arbery’s mental health. 

“Someone’s going to need to walk me through this evidence and tell me how it gets in a case like this,” Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley said, requesting that the defense submit their request on paper within the next 20 days before he makes his decision. 

“I want to know what evidence we’re claiming to get in to show this, what you claim to be relevant evidence.” 

The video of the incident shows little interaction between Arbery and his killers before he was shot, making it difficult to see how his mental health would have impacted the outcome of the shooting. 

Mental health issues are also a weak justification for shooting someone in the street while they are out for a jog. 

Defense attorneys took a different stance, however, and argued that Arbery’s history of mental illness is relevant to his death. 

“It is OK to recognize and celebrate who Ahmaud Arbery was in 2012 when he graduated high school, but it is reckless to disregard the mental health illness that plagued him for eight years leading up to this moment on February 23, 2020,” said Jason Sheffield, defense attorney for Travis McMichael.

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What are Ahmaud Arbrey's mental health issues?

Defense attorneys claim that Arbery was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, a combination of schizophrenia and mood disorders. 

However, there are questions as to the validity of this diagnosis, with prosecutors questioning the quality of this diagnosis, which was issued by two nurses, an RN and a NP, in a two-hour evaluation.

One of the nurses testified that she trained to give mental health evaluations through an online course. 

Schizoaffective disorder is typically diagnosed by psychiatrists and psychologists through interviews and assessments. 

Prosecutors say the defense wants to blame Arbery for his own death and that it is a ploy to make Arbery look reactive.  

According to Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski, “They said, 'well he’s got a diagnosis and it makes him angry and it makes him emotional and therefore he must have been angry and emotional and therefore this is how he reacted that day' — all of which is speculation and all of it is propensity evidence which is not allowed."

The reliance on the ‘angry Black man’ trope has been widely used to blame Black men for their deaths and to discredit Black witnesses testifying against white men. But it is a disservice to the innocent victims who lose their lives to angry white men. 

Mental illness is not a death sentence, nor should it excuse the behavior of men who mistakenly take the law into their own hands. 

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Defense attorneys want Arbery’s previous run-ins to be used as evidence. 

Defense attorneys have also requested to introduce evidence showing that Arbery had been in trouble with the law several times in the years before his death. 

Arbery had encounters with police over shoplifting incidences, and for trespassing after he parked his car on private property near his grandmother’s house. A school district chief testified that Arbery once brought a gun to a high school game. 

"The only purpose for placing the 'other acts' of Mr. Arbery before a jury is to smear the character of Mr. Arbery and suggest that his murder was deserved," prosecutors wrote in a court filing.

It must be stressed that Arbery’s killers had no knowledge of his mental health or these incidents when they pursued him. Arbery’s character was not a concern of theirs when McMichael shot him, but, as is clear from the slurs said by his killer, his race likely was. 

His run-ins with the law have no bearing on a case in which he did not commit any crime. 

"What Mr. Arbery did was he fled because he was under no legal obligation whatsoever to talk to strangers who were trying to hit him with their pickup trucks and shoot him with their shotguns," Dunikoski said.

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Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her Twitter for more.