BRUNSWICK, Ga., Nov 22 (Reuters) - A jury heard dueling accounts of whether the three white men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery had any right to chase and shoot the unarmed Black man in their mostly white Georgia neighborhood in closing arguments on Monday.
BRUNSWICK – After two weeks of testimony in the trial of three white men charged with murder in Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting, attorneys deliver their closing arguments today.
Race has permeated the public’s perception of the case from the beginning, but the issue has been notably absent from the evidence presented by prosecutors at trial.
Arbery, who was Black, was shot and killed Feb. 23, 2020, after being chased through the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside Brunswick. Travis McMichael, who fired the fatal shotgun blasts; his father Greg McMichael, a former investigator for the local district attorney’s office; and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, were arrested more than two months later.
The killing galvanized this community of 85,000 and led to widespread demonstrations against systemic racism after Bryan’s cellphone video of the shooting became public. Arbery’s family has described the 25-year-old’s death as a “lynching” and all three defendants face federal hate crime charges.
A sea of Black clergy members descended on courthouse grounds Thursday after repeated efforts by Bryan’s attorney to have high-profile Black pastors and civil rights icons barred from the courtroom.
But the issue of race wasn’t brought up by prosecutors in front of the nearly all-white jury during the trial. It’s a decision that defense attorney Page Pate, who is closely following the case, called “a missed opportunity.”
“I think the calculation was they thought, especially with the makeup of this jury, that it would backfire if they tried to make it too much about race” said Pate, whose Brunswick office overlooks the courthouse. “I think they also just felt really confident about the video evidence and it being a clear case of murder, not self-defense.”
“But how you perceive that video is different depending on your background, and I think they miscalculated,” Pate said of the prosecution. He said the decision not to introduce race as a possible motive could end up swaying the case in favor of the defense.
Going into closing arguments, Pate thinks the jury could go either way.
Judge Timothy Walmsley ruled that photos of a Confederate flag license plate on Travis’ pickup truck could be shown at trial. It was included in photographs and police body camera recordings shown to jurors but the prosecution has made no mention of it, at least so far. Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski also never mentioned in front of the jury that Bryan told a GBI investigator he heard Travis McMichael utter a racial epithet as Arbery bled out on the asphalt.
Dunikoski, in her cross-examination, got Travis McMichael to admit that Arbery never threatened him or said anything menacing.
“He never yelled at you guys, never threatened you at all, never brandished any weapons, didn’t pull out any guns … Never reached for anything, did he? He just ran?”
“Yes, he was just running,” McMichael said.
The 3 white men accused of murder and other crimes in the shooting death of Arbery, a Black man, could face up to life in prison.
The verdict in the trial of three white men accused of murder and other crimes in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, is now in the hands of 12 jurors after prosecutors made final closing arguments Tuesday morning.
The three men each face charges of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony in the killing of Arbery, 25, last year in Georgia.
They face up to life in prison if convicted of the more serious charges.
Travis McMichael; his father, Gregory McMichael; and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan chased Arbery in pickup trucks after they spotted him in their neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020.
Travis McMichael shot Arbery, 25, with a shotgun at close range. Bryan filmed the fatal encounter on his cellphone.
A nearly all-white jury — it includes one Black juror — will determine their fate. Jurors deliberated for about six hours on Tuesday without reaching a verdict. They will resume deliberations Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. local time.
Defense lawyers have said the men suspected Arbery, who had been spotted several times on security camera video at a home under construction in the neighborhood, was a burglar. The lawyers said the men were trying to conduct a citizen’s arrest, which was legal in the state at the time.
“A good neighborhood is always policing itself,” Laura Hogue, an attorney for Gregory McMichael, told jurors Monday during closing arguments. Each defendant has his own defense team.
But prosecutors have argued that the men had no “immediate knowledge” of Arbery having committed a crime, a requirement of a citizen’s arrest. Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said the men made the decision to “attack” because Arbery “was a Black man running down the street,” and not because he was a threat.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley instructed the jury Tuesday that a "private citizen’s warrantless arrest must occur immediately after the perpetration of the offense, or in the case of felonies during escape.”
“If the observer fails to make the arrest immediately after the commission of the offense, or during escape in the case of felonies, his power to do so is extinguished,” he said.
The judge ruled Friday afternoon that under Georgia’s since-repealed citizen’s arrest law, the one applied in this case, the arrest would have to occur right after any felony crime was committed, not days or months later.
Travis McMichael testified during the trial that he feared for his life before he shot Arbery and did so in self-defense.
Jason Sheffield, who represents Travis McMichael, said Monday that his client had “the right to perform a citizen’s arrest” and believed Arbery committed the crime of burglary.
“You do have the right to have a firearm when you make an arrest,” Sheffield said. “You do have the right to stop a person and to hold them and detain them for the police. And there is risk with that and there are tragic consequences that can come from that.”
Walmsley instructed jurors that they may consider simple assault, reckless conduct and reckless driving as lesser charges to aggravated assault for Bryan.
Prosecutors have argued that all three men made a snap judgment about Arbery after seeing him in their neighborhood, with the McMichaels going to confront him with guns and Bryan wielding his truck as a weapon.
The state has also said the men were the initial aggressors and not acting in self-defense.
“They committed four different felonies, including the aggravated assault with a shotgun. They started it, they do not get to claim self defense,” Dunikoski said Tuesday morning during a second day of closing arguments.
She said the men were not justified in claiming they were making a citizen’s arrest of Arbery because they did not witness him commit any crime nor did they have immediate knowledge he had just committed a crime.
She said if the jurors found the men did not have the right to make a citizen’s arrest of Arbery, “that means they’re guilty on all charges.”
“They’re all equally responsible for the ultimate death of the victim,” she said.
Dunikoski said the case was not about whether the three defendants were “good people or bad people.”
“It’s about holding people accountable and responsible for their actions. When they do something like this, they have to be held accountable and responsible,” she said.
Outside the courthouse, an attorney for the Arbery family said they were confident the jurors would reach a guilty verdict.
"We’re confident that this jury will seriously consider all the evidence and come back with a verdict that is reflective of what actually happened, which is the brutal and unjustified murder of Ahmaud Arbery," attorney Lee Merritt said.
Dozens of opinions on Rittenhouse but a grand total of 0 on this case so far here.
I do not know this case like I knew the Rittenhouse case. I did see some evidence, no n4arly all. And what I saw lead me to think that Aubrey had been there before and likely stole stuff from there. The shooting video showed clearly a guy with a shotgun and Aubrey approach him and try to take his gun away. I kind of figured both sides had some fault and the jury would convict on a lesser charge like manslaughter. Really do not know enough about this case and after a year of the media lying daily about Rittenhouse I do not think they have any credibility to even report on crime any more.