WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Three white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery on a residential street in Georgia in February 2020 acted out of “pent-up racial anger” and should be convicted of hate crimes, a federal prosecutor told a jury on Monday.
Defence lawyers in the hate-crime trial argued that the Black man was fatally shot in self-defence and had acted suspiciously during prior trips to the neighbourhood.
The jury of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person adjourned without a verdict on Monday evening after deliberating about for about three hours, following closing legal arguments in U.S. District Court. Verdicts on hate crime charges rest not on whether the pursuit and shooting were justified but whether they were motivated by racism.
The jury is scheduled to resume deliberations on Tuesday morning.
Defendant wanted to hurt Black person: prosecutor
Prosecutor Christopher Perras argued that Travis Michael “was just looking for a reason” to hurt a Black person when Arbery, 25, jogged past his home on a Sunday afternoon. He cited a slew of racist comments and videos Travis McMichael had posted online.
When McMichael, his father, Greg, and a neighbour began chasing Arbery, they had no evidence he had done anything wrong, but they assumed he had because he was Black, Perras said.
When Greg McMichael saw Arbery jogging down the street, “he didn’t grab his phone and call police,” Perras said. “He called his son and grabbed his gun.”
“There’s a big difference between being vigilant and being a vigilante,” the prosecutor said.
“It’s important for you to understand the full depth of the defendants’ racial hatred.”
It’s been nearly two years since Arbery died from two shotgun blasts on Feb. 23, 2020, after a five-minute chase through the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside the port city of Brunswick. The slaying was captured in a graphic cellphone video that sparked outrage far beyond Georgia.
Basic facts of the case aren’t disputed. The McMichaels armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after he was spotted running past their home on a Sunday afternoon. A neighbour, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded the video of Travis McMichael firing the fatal shots at point-blank range.
The McMichaels and Bryan were all convicted of murder last fall in a Georgia state court. The U.S. Justice Department charged them separately in federal court with hate crimes, alleging that all three men violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he’s Black.
They are also charged with attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels face counts of using guns in the commission of a crime.
No proof Arbery targeted over race: defence
Defence attorneys insisted past racist statements by their clients offered no proof that they had targeted Arbery because of his race. They urged the jury to set aside emotions when deciding the case.
“It’s natural for you to want retribution or revenge,” said Pete Theodocion, Bryan’s attorney. “But we have to elevate ourselves … even if it’s the tough thing.”
Travis McMichael’s attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, told the jury prosecutors presented no evidence that he “ever spoke to anyone about Mr. Arbery’s death in racial terms” or committed prior acts of racial violence.
Copeland said that the McMichaels pursued Arbery because they recognized him from videos recorded by security cameras inside a neighbouring home under construction, which Arbery had entered at night four times in the months before the shooting. She said the behaviour was suspicious, though there was no evidence Arbery had stolen anything.
As for the shooting, Copeland said it was “based on self-defense,” with Travis McMichael opening fire after Arbery tried to grab his shotgun.
“Mr. Arbery tried to wrestle the gun out of Travis McMichael’s hand,” Copeland said. “You can see the struggle on the recording.
Men pursued Arbery on suspicion of theft: defence
Defence attorneys have insisted that the trio pursued Arbery based on an earnest, though erroneous, suspicion that he had committed crimes in their neighbourhood.
Before the day of the shooting, security cameras had recorded Arbery several times inside a home under construction a few doors down from the McMichaels’ house. Security videos showed Arbery taking nothing from the construction site. An officer told the McMichaels there was no evidence of him stealing.
Greg McMichael told police he recognized Arbery as he came running out of the same unfinished house the day of the shooting. His attorney, A.J. Balbo, said Monday that his client had previously confronted white people who were suspected of possibly committing crimes in the area.
Balbo said his client didn’t chase Arbery because he was a Black man, but because he was “THE man” who had been seen in the house.
Bryan, who knew nothing of the security footage, told investigators he assumed Arbery had done something wrong when he ran past Bryan’s house with the McMichaels in pursuit.
Theodocion, Bryan’s attorney, argued Monday that it was “entirely reasonable” for his client to assume that a truck he recognized as belonging to someone in the neighbourhood was chasing Arbery because he had done something wrong.
The chase, and Bryan’s participation in it, “would have happened regardless of race, based on the circumstances,” Theodocion said.
Court hears of defendants’ past racist messages
FBI agents uncovered roughly two dozen racist text messages and social media posts from the McMichaels and Bryan in the years and months preceding the shooting.
In 2018, Travis McMichael commented on a Facebook video of a Black man playing a prank on a white person: “I’d kill that f—ing n—-r.” Greg McMichael had posted a Facebook meme saying white Irish “slaves” were treated worse than any race in U.S. history. And for several years on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bryan wrote messages in which he mocked the holiday honouring the civil rights leader.
Some witnesses testified they heard the McMichaels’ racist statements firsthand. A woman who served under Travis McMichael in the U.S. Coast Guard a decade ago said he made crude sexual jokes after learning she had dated a Black man and called her “n—-r lover.”
Another woman testified Greg McMichael had ranted angrily in 2015 when she remarked on the death of civil rights activist Julian Bond, saying, “All those Blacks are nothing but trouble.”
Regardless of the outcome of the hate crimes case, the McMichaels have been sentenced to life in prison without parole for their murder convictions. Bryan also received a life sentence, with parole possible only after he’s served at least 30 years.