Closing Arguments Begin in Trial for Three Men Charged With Murdering Ahmaud Arbery

The jury began to hear closing arguments Monday in the trial of three white men charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, on a residential street in Brunswick, Georgia. The February 2020 killing occurred while Arbery was running through the neighborhood of Satilla Shores; a father and son believed he looked like someone responsible for nearby break-ins, armed themselves, and pursued him in a pickup truck, with a neighbor joining the pursuit in a second pickup truck. Arbery was shot multiple times at close range. The case went without arrests for more than two months and would later spark protests for racial justice, as many described the shooting as a prominent instance of racial violence. Video of the fatal encounter appeared to show Arbery running between two pickup trucks and looping around the front truck before tussling with a man with a shotgun and then falling, bleeding, to the ground. 

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The verdict in the already highly-profile case is poised to carry extra significance since the Nov. 19 acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, who a jury found acted in self defense when shooting three people with an AR-15-style rifle during protests following the police police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in 2020. That decision was a cause for celebration among some on the right, but raised concerns for others about vigilantism and a perceived racial double standard about who can claim self defense.

Travis McMichael, who has testified to firing his gun at Arbery, along with his father, Greg McMichael, and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan have pleaded not guilty to charges of aggravated assault, false imprisonment, malice murder, and felony murder. During the trial, the prosecution described the defendants as dangerous vigilantes who attacked the unarmed man, chasing him for five minutes in their pickups before confronting him with firearms. The defense has argued the three men were attempting to make a legitimate citizen’s arrest for a suspected break-in in a neighborhood that was on edge about crime. Travis McMichael claimed in testimony that he shot Arbery in self-defense when Arbery grabbed his shotgun and seemed like he would overpower him. “I knew that I was losing this,” he told jurors.

In her initial closing arguments, lead prosecutor for the State Linda Dunikoski said the three defendants had no cause to pursue Arbery or attempt a citizen’s arrest on Feb. 23, 2020, because they simply assumed, without knowing, that he had committed a crime that day. She said Arbery’s behavior — namely running away from the men in trucks, and never pulling out a weapon — did not constitute the “imminent use of unlawful force” that would be required for a self-defense claim. “Who brought the shotgun to the party? Who took the shotgun out of the car? Who pointed the shotgun?” she said. “You cannot create the situation, then say, ‘I was defending myself,’” adding, “If you use excessive force during your self-defense you’re not justified — you’re guilty.” 

She said people are not allowed to force others to comply with their demands by pointing guns at them and that the three men had “attacked” Arbery “because he was a Black man running down the street.” The emphasis on Arbery’s race was notable compared to the rest of the trial, during which the prosecution did not explicitly allege racial bias in the killing, although issues of race were not absent from the proceedings. Jury selection eliminated all but one Black juror from the panel of 12, and a defense lawyer pushed unsuccessfully to bar “Black pastors” from the courtroom, claiming they could be “intimidating” or otherwise influence the jurors after Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Jesse Jackson attended the proceedings. Dunikoski did not bring up the racist comments defendants had allegedly made, including a claim by Bryan that his fellow defendant, Travis McMichael, had used a racist epithet after shooting Arbery (McMichael’s lawyers denied the claim). She asked the jurors multiple times to “use common sense” and put on their “critical thinking caps” to find the defendants guilty of four felonies.

Ahmaud Arbery

Courtesy of Marcus Arbery, Sr.

Lawyers for the McMichaels argued that the men were being good neighbors. “Duty and responsibility and following the law will always be intertwined with heartache and tragedy,” said Jason Sheffield, a lawyer for Travis McMichael. McMichael had acted out of a “sense of duty and responsibility,” Sheffield said, arguing that McMichael’s Coast Guard training in policing and rescue operations had been “burned into his muscle memory.” The “totality of circumstances” had led him to believe a crime had been committed, Sheffield said, including an encounter with Arbery in a house that was under construction several days earlier. Sheffield said McMichael had intended to deescalate the situation rather than kill Arbery, citing testimony by a neighbor that he’d been “freaked out” and “discombobulated” after the shooting. Ultimately, he claimed, McMichaels had acted in defense of his life. “You are allowed to defend yourself,” Mr. Sheffield said. “At that moment, Travis believed it was necessary.”

“A good neighborhood is always policing itself,” said Laura Hogue, the lawyer for Greg McMichael. She described Arbery as a “recurring nighttime intruder” and argued that it was Arbery’s choice to “fight,” and to run toward a man wielding a shotgun that left Travis McMichael no alternative but to attempt a citizen’s arrest, which would end up killing Arbery. Hogue also described Arbery as wearing khaki shorts and “no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails” to rebut the notion that he could have been in the neighborhood on a jog at the time. She said Greg McMichael had probable cause to make a citizen’s arrest based on security footage he’d seen that appeared to have shown Arbery entering the house that under construction.

A lawyer for Bryan aimed to distance Bryan from his fellow defendants. Bryan is accused of pursuing and helping to box in Arbery with his truck and has said he ran Arbery off the road with his truck several times. Arbery’s family attorney claimed Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, recently requested a last-minute plea deal, a move Gough has denied. Gough did ask the judge to sever Bryan’s case from the McMichaels’ earlier on Monday, and requested a mistrial multiple times, including on Monday afternoon. Gough argued Bryan, whose cell phone video of the fatal encounter would become a central piece of evidence in the case, was “armed only with a cell phone,” and was guided by an “entity,” possibly God, to record Arbery’s actions to share with the police. “Roddie Bryan’s presence is absolutely superfluous and irrelevant to the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery,” he said, asking the jury to find Bryan not guilty.

The state gets one more rebuttal session Tuesday morning, with the jury set to begin deliberations after that. All three men also face federal hate crime charges with a trial scheduled for early next year. They have pleaded not guilty to the charges.

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