Ahmaud Arbery case: Black pastors flock to courthouse after attorney’s remarks

Defense rests its case

BRUNSWICK - The mood inside the Glynn County courthouse was grim on Thursday as prosecutors cross-examined Travis McMichael, the man who shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery.

Outside, though, was an air of jubilation as hundreds of pastors — Black pastors — stood in prayer with Arbery’s family.

“We are here today to pray for this family to have strength,” said Rev. Al Sharpton, who organized the event. “I want them to have the comfort that people came from all over the world.”

Attorneys for all three defendants rested their case Thursday. Closing arguments are scheduled to begin Monday.

Thursday’s gathering followed remarks from attorney Kevin Gough, who represents one of the men accused in Arbery’s February 2020 shooting death.

“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” Gough said last week. He has argued the presence of Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson could pressure or intimidate the jury.

Defendants Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan, face murder and other charges. They contend they were making a citizen’s arrest due to suspicions Arbery had entered an empty home under construction.

Travis McMichael took the stand on Wednesday as the defense team’s first witness. During his emotional testimony, the 35-year-old described the moment he and Arbery struggled over his 12-gauge shotgun.

“I shot him,” said McMichael. “He had my gun. He struck me. It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would’ve gotten the shotgun from me, that this is a life or death situation and I’m going to have to stop him from doing this, so I shot.”

State prosecutor Linda Dunikoski continued her cross-examination on Thursday. McMichael said he thought Arbery was responsible for a sting of break-ins based on the “totality of everything” he’d seen leading up to the chase.

“I was aware of things, of burglaries and vehicles being broken into in the neighborhood,” McMichael said. “He is the one that I have seen and he is the one that has been in the house several times … So of course I’m thinking he’s a suspect.”

Dunikoski noted that McMichael and his father could have just called the police or let the unarmed Arbery run away.

In the overflow room across from the courtroom, Arbery’s aunt, Thea Brooks, watched the proceedings with rapt attention. Printed on her T-shirt: “I support Black pastors.”

“She did an amazing job,” Brooks said of Dunikoski’s questioning. “Just how she kept reiterating ‘he had no weapons, he was no threat to you, you had the opportunity to turn around, you had the opportunity to leave.’”

Outside, hundreds of demonstrators chanted “no justice, no peace” as Brooks spoke to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright, a Brunswick native who attended Glynn Academy for high school, was among the volunteers handing out plates of fried fish and shrimp to the group.

Brooks said she felt Gough had brought the gathering to the courthouse.

“That’s why I wore this shirt today,” she said. “Just for him.”

Gough has frequently voiced concerns about gatherings and has asked for a mistrial four times, each rejected by Judge Timothy Walmsley.

Gough drew criticism when he objected to Sharpton sitting in the courtroom with Arbery’s parents and complained again on Monday to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presence in the courtroom with the family.

“How many pastors does the Arbery family have?” Gough said. “I don’t know who Reverend Jackson is pastoring here.”

On Tuesday, Gough filed a motion to “prohibit any further conduct that may intimidate or influence jurors or otherwise interfere with a fair trial.” On Wednesday, he moved for a mistrial for the fourth time since the trial began.

“Respectfully, due process dictates that pastors, public officials and other community leaders openly advocating for the conviction of these three men as murderers should not sit in the public gallery in this case,” the motion said in part. “Nor should civil rights icons like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson be permitted to do so.”

On Thursday, Gough raised another objection and once again moved for a mistrial, noting Jackson was in the courtroom again. He also complained about the “I support Black Pastors” T-shirt he saw someone wearing. Cheers broke out in the overflow room in response.

Brooks said she and her sisters had the shirts made especially for the pastoral gathering.

“There’s only three of us,” she said. “He found us out of three people. Out of all these people here. Us.”

John Perry, senior pastor of Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Brunswick said Thursday’s gathering was a direct response to Gough’s statements in court. He called Gough’s words “an attack against the faith community.” Sharpton also condemned Gough’s statements.

“He attacked the church,” Sharpton said. “He didn’t just say ‘enough of civil rights leaders.’ He said ‘no more Black pastors.’ He called them ‘Black’ pastors. He didn’t even say he cared about white pastors. Well, if you thought one was enough, look at what you brought now.”