Closing arguments delivered in Ahmaud Arbery case

‘He chose to fight,’ defense attorney says

Attorneys on Monday sought to make one last impression on jurors tasked with deciding the fate of three white men charged with murder in Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting.

Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski painted the image of an unarmed Black man running for his life as three white men he’d never met chased him.

Defense attorneys argued that Greg and Travis McMichael believed Arbery committed a burglary and felt it was their duty to protect the neighborhood and detain him for police.

Arbery, who was Black, was killed Feb. 23, 2020, after being chased through a community outside Brunswick. Travis McMichael, who fired the fatal shotgun blasts; his father Greg, a former investigator for the local district attorney’s office; and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, were arrested more than two months later.

Bryan recorded the cellphone video of the killing that became the central piece of evidence.

caption arrowCaption
Defendants William "Roddie" Bryan (left), Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael have been charged with killing Ahmaud Arbery.

Credit: Associated Press

Defendants William "Roddie" Bryan (left), Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael have been charged with killing Ahmaud Arbery.
caption arrowCaption
Defendants William "Roddie" Bryan (left), Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael have been charged with killing Ahmaud Arbery.

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

Thirty witnesses were called during trial — seven from the defense, 23 from the state.

“The state’s position is all three of these defendants made assumptions, made assumptions about what was going on that day,” Dunikoski said. “And they made their decision to attack Ahmaud Arbery in their driveways because he was a Black man running down the street.”

Race permeated the public’s perception of the case from the beginning, but the issue was notably absent from the evidence presented by prosecutors at trial — although Dunikoski made a point to touch upon it in her closing.

Jason Sheffield, who represents Travis McMichael, said the 35-year-old was within his right to chase and try to detain Arbery under Georgia’s old citizen’s arrest law. He argued his client had no choice but to open fire in self-defense.

The citizen’s arrest law, repealed in the wake of Arbery’s killing, gave private citizens the right to detain someone if they had “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion” that person was escaping a felony.

Arbery entered a home under construction at least five times in weeks prior to his killing. He was captured on surveillance footage, but prosecutors said there is no proof he ever stole anything. The McMichaels had seen him inside the home, defense attorneys said, and suspected he stole more than $2,000 worth of electronic equipment from a neighbor’s boat.

The neighborhood was on edge, Sheffield said. Security cameras sprouted up, and neighbors shared their concerns on community Facebook pages.

“What was happening in their neighborhood scared them. It caused them concern,” Sheffield said of the neighborhood. “It was unsettling to imagine people lurking and sneaking around your property at night, so that your cameras were going off. ... That’s frightening.”

He said Travis McMichael never intended to kill Arbery but had no choice when Arbery ran up on him and the two struggled over the 12-gauge shotgun.

“He never, ever, when he left his driveway that day, thought that things would end this way. Not ever,” Sheffield said, calling the end result “absolutely horrific and tragic.”

Travis McMichael testified last week, saying he thought Arbery would continue running. Instead, Arbery approached the former Coast Guard member as he stood in front of his truck holding his gun.

“Travis doesn’t have a duty to retreat,” Sheffield said. “He’s allowed to stay where he thinks he is lawfully allowed to be and to try to defend himself and others.

“This is where the law is intertwined with heartache and tragedy,” he explained. “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 was necessary.”

Dunikoski said a person can’t claim self-defense after initiating danger themselves if they are the initial aggressors or committing a felony while doing so. She gave an example of a robber who shot and killed a clerk after the clerk fought back.

“Three-on-one,” she said of Arbery’s final moments. “Two pickup trucks, two guns. They want you to believe he was a danger to them ... There’s three of them. If you are the initial, unjustified aggressor, you don’t get to claim self-defense.”

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, briefly left the courtroom when Laura Hogue, who represents Greg McMichael, attacked her son’s character in her closing arguments.

Hogue referred to Arbery as a “nighttime intruder” who went to the home “night after night” and “knew exactly why the McMichaels were trying to detain him.”

Not a single piece of evidence in the case supports the prosecution’s contention that Arbery was killed by people who did not want him running in their neighborhood, Hogue said.

“Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts, with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails,” Hogue said.

Upon hearing that, Cooper-Jones said, stood up and left the gallery.

“A beautiful teenager with a broad smile and a crooked baseball cap can go astray. He can deteriorate and lose his way. And years later, he can end up creeping into a home that is not his own, and running away instead of facing the consequences,” Hogue said. “No one is saying that Ahmaud Arbery deserved to die for whatever it was he was doing inside 220 Satilla Drive. That’s not why he died. He died, because for whatever inexplicable, illogical reason, instead of staying where he was... he chose to fight.”

Arbery’s mother later said Hogue’s comments about her son were “beyond rude.”

“She described Ahmaud with his long legs and his dirty long toenails.” Cooper-Jones said. “That was just beyond rude. Regardless of what kind of toenails he had, what size legs he had, that was still my son. And my son was actually running for his life.”

Dunikoski, in her closing, noted that Arbery had no weapons, no cellphone and couldn’t call for help if he wanted to.

“Travis McMichael said he was penned between the two trucks,” Dunikoski said, referring to what the defendants told police shortly after the shooting. “Greg McMichael said he was ‘trapped like a rat’ between the two trucks, the ultimate false imprisonment.”

Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, argued his client never shot anyone.

“He was armed only with his cellphone,” said Gough, who noted his client turned over the footage to police at the scene and later sat for interviews with investigators.

Even if he had known the McMichaels had guns, Gough said, “What could he have done to stop it?”

Gough filed a motion Friday to have his client tried individually, and he later filed another mistrial motion over gatherings outside the courthouse, where New Black Panther Party members waved flags as demonstrators carried signs declaring “Justice for Ahmaud.” Both of Gough’s motions were denied.

After court adjourned, Arbery’s father Marcus Arbery Sr. addressed the news media and a crowd of demonstrators, some of whom were armed, outside the courthouse.

“We’re going to try to keep this thing nonviolent because that’s what they want,” he said. “We can’t get on their level. We want justice. We want to get justice the honest way.”

Jurors are expected to begin deliberations Tuesday.