A jury heard dueling accounts of whether the three white men charged in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery had any right to chase the unarmed Black man through their mostly white Georgia neighborhood as closing arguments in the murder trial began on Monday.
Gregory McMichael, 65; his son Travis McMichael, 35; and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, have pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.
Prosecutors said the men “assumed the worst” about a 25-year-old Black man running by their homes who had nothing on him but his jogging clothes and shoes. They attacked him in a five-minute pursuit through Satilla Shores on Feb. 23, 2020.
In contrast, the defense lawyer for the elder McMichael, Laura Hogue, painted Arbery as a frightening burglar with “long dirty toenails,” using a description from the coroner’s report.
At that comment, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, was heard exclaiming “Wow!” as she hurried out of the room, saying she could not listen any more.
Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said the defendants killed Arbery, an avid jogger, “not because he’s a threat to them, but because he wouldn’t stop and talk to them.”
“They made their decision to attack Ahmaud Arbery in their driveways because he was a Black man running down the street,” she said, the prosecution’s most direct assertion so far of a racist motivation in a case which mentioned on race only in passing in front of the jury.
The younger McMichael was the only defendant to take the stand, testifying he fired his shotgun at close range at Arbery in self defense and describing it as the most traumatic event of his life. He said Arbery had grabbed at his gun.
In his closing argument, Jason Sheffield, one of McMichael’s lawyers, pointed to the law-enforcement training McMichael got during his nine years in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he worked as a mechanic.
Sheffield showed jurors parts of the widely seen cellphone video Bryan made of the shooting as he drove near in his own truck. The attorney froze it at the moment Arbery ran towards Travis McMichael, who had just aimed his shotgun at Arbery.
“There’s no question that Ahmaud’s hands are on this gun,” he said, saying McMichael was in fear of his life at this moment. “You are allowed to defend yourself. You are allowed to use force that is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury if you believe it’s necessary. At that moment Travis, believed it is necessary.”
A GOOD NEIGHBORHOOD
Dunikoski said the jury should consider whether McMichael lied on the stand and derided his testimony as self-serving and inconsistent with his initial accounts to police.
McMichael testified that he and his father thought Arbery might have been behind recent thefts in the neighborhood and that he briefly saw Arbery 12 days before the shooting outside a nearby empty, half-built house after dark.
No evidence has emerged that Arbery took anything on his frequent runs through Satilla Shores, and the property owner later said through a lawyer he believed Arbery was stopping for a drink from a water faucet on the site.
Nonetheless, Hogue argued, Arbery had an intent to steal in his repeated visits to the construction site at night. Her argument sometimes drew shocked muttering from Arbery’s supporters. She noted nothing needed to have been taken for a burglary to have been committed.
“A beautiful teenager with a broad smile and a crooked baseball cap can deteriorate and lose his way,” Hogue said, referring to a photograph of Arbery that prosecutors showed jurors. “Years later he can end up creeping into a home that is not his own and running away.”
The defendants have argued that they had a right to try to detain Arbery under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, which was repealed in the wake of outrage over the killing.
“A good neighborhood is always policing itself,” Hogue said.
The citizen’s arrest law allowed anyone to detain a person if there is reasonable and probable suspicion that the person is fleeing a serious felony crime they just committed.
But trespassing is a misdemeanor, Dunikoski noted, and none of the defendants knew where Arbery had been or what he was doing before running past their driveways.
For the felony murder charges, the prosecution does not have to show anyone intended to kill Arbery. They only need to prove that the men falsely imprisoned him or assaulted him using the shotgun and their trucks, and that one of those underlying felony crimes caused Arbery’s death.