‘Justice is on trial’: Race a key topic as trial in Ahmaud Arbery shooting nears end

Civil rights activist Porchse Miller of Atlanta shouts into a megaphone during march that followed the Wall of Prayer event outside the Glynn County Courthouse, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. The Rev. Al Sharpton organized the event after defense attorney Kevin Gough to objected to the presence of Black pastors in the courtroom. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Caption
Civil rights activist Porchse Miller of Atlanta shouts into a megaphone during march that followed the Wall of Prayer event outside the Glynn County Courthouse, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. The Rev. Al Sharpton organized the event after defense attorney Kevin Gough to objected to the presence of Black pastors in the courtroom. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

BRUNSWICK - In the jury box and throughout the courthouse gallery where the trial over Ahmaud Arbery’s death is taking place, tension and tedium hang in the air like humidity in the Georgia summer.

Outside the courthouse hangs an impatience for court proceedings to end. In between, anxiety.

The trial for the three men accused of murder is nearing its end, and many in this coastal community have no doubt that Arbery’s race factored into his killing.

Arbery was shot twice with a 12-gauge shotgun after being pursued by men who suspected him of entering an empty home under construction. Glynn County police initially told Arbery’s mother that her son was killed following a burglary and confrontation with a homeowner.

Explore'A specific role for the Black pastor that no one else has to play'

“You’ve seen in the videos and the things that have been presented in the trial,” said Arbery’s aunt, Thea Brooks. “There were white people that entered into the home, and no one ever said anything to them. I feel like if he was white he would still be alive.”

The shooting turned her into an activist and an advocate.

“Once Ahmaud’s death occurred, something just came over me,” said Brooks, who visited the home at the center of the case and felt things didn’t add up. “We were sending emails, cutting out articles in the paper, trying to make comparisons to where Ahmaud’s body was in the street versus the story that (police) gave his mom in the beginning.”

Caption
Thea Brooks, the aunt of Ahmaud Arbery, wears a T-shirt supporting Black pastors following inflammatory comments from attorney Kevin Gough.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Thea Brooks, the aunt of Ahmaud Arbery, wears a T-shirt supporting Black pastors following inflammatory comments from attorney Kevin Gough.
Caption
Thea Brooks, the aunt of Ahmaud Arbery, wears a T-shirt supporting Black pastors following inflammatory comments from attorney Kevin Gough.

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Credit: ASIA SIMONE BURNS / ASIA.BURNS@AJC.COM

Arbery’s death — and the subsequent trial of the three men involved in it — has been inundated with allegations of racism. In Brunswick, a city where more than half the population is Black, all but one member of the jury is white. A defense attorney has repeatedly complained about Black pastors, including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, sitting in on court proceedings.

Arbery’s family has called the fatal shooting a “public lynching.” The attorney who represents Arbery’s father has likened the 25-year-old’s death to that of Emmett Till. His mother’s attorney has called her “the Mamie Till of our generation.”

Arbery was Black. Defendants Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan are all white. Bryan, who captured the fatal shooting on his cellphone, would later tell the GBI that he heard Travis McMichael utter a racial epithet over Arbery’s body as he lay bleeding in the street. That wasn’t brought up in front of the jury.

Caption
Defense rests in Ahmaud Arbery case as hundreds of pastors gathered to support family

Defense rests in Ahmaud Arbery case as hundreds of pastors gathered to support family
Caption
Defense rests in Ahmaud Arbery case as hundreds of pastors gathered to support family

Attorney Kevin Gough, who defends Bryan, has filed about a half dozen motions for a mistrial - all rejected - and asked the judge to prohibit “high-profile members of the African-American community” from sitting in on court proceedings.

“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” Gough said, arguing such prominent figures could pressure or intimidate the jury.

Caption
Defense attorney Kevin Gough speaks during the trial of Greg McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan at the Glynn County Courthouse, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. The three are charged with the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. (Octavio Jones/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: OCTAVIO JONES

Defense attorney Kevin Gough speaks during the trial of Greg McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan at the Glynn County Courthouse, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga.  The three are charged with the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery.  (Octavio Jones/Pool Photo via AP)
Caption
Defense attorney Kevin Gough speaks during the trial of Greg McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan at the Glynn County Courthouse, Friday, Nov. 19, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. The three are charged with the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. (Octavio Jones/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: OCTAVIO JONES

Credit: OCTAVIO JONES

That request also was rejected, drawing a rebuke from the trial judge and widespread outrage.

“I think Gough’s comments were a distraction. I think they were wildly inappropriate,” said Rabbi Rachael Bregman, who leads Temple Beth Tefilloh in Brunswick. “I think suggesting that Black pastors might be intimidating to a jury made up of almost exclusively white women is beyond the pale.”

On Wednesday, Bregman, other clergy members and county leaders stood outside the Glynn courthouse for a prayer vigil. The mayor of Brunswick, Cornell Harvey, was among those who attended.

ExploreComplete coverage of the Ahmaud Arbery case

Harvey, elected eight years ago, is the city’s first Black mayor. He said the racial undertones of Arbery’s slaying have disturbed the entire community.

“Whether they chased him because he was Black or they chased him because he was somebody in their neighborhood, it’s still the same thing,” said Harvey, who leaves office in January. “You just don’t do those things. I’d like to think that you could jog through my neighborhood … and nothing would happen to you.”

Still, he said, “All and all, we have stayed together. The community has rallied around unity, so that’s one of the things that we are going to continue to do.”

Glynn County has a population of 85,000 people, 69% of whom are white and more than 26% of whom are Black. In Brunswick, 55% of residents are Black. Local leaders say Arbery’s killing indeed has unified the area.

ExploreListen to "Breakdown" Season 8: The Ahmaud Arbery case

“It shocked our community, for obvious reasons, but it has also brought our community together,” said Pastor Alan Dyer of St. Simons Presbyterian Church, “especially around issues of racial reconciliation.

“To many, it’s evident that race was a factor, in all likelihood, that motivated the actions of the accused,” he said.

He pointed behind him as hundreds of people — Black and white — ate lunch together outside the courthouse last week. “This, to me, is the true Glynn County,” he said.

On Thursday, hundreds of supporters, clergy and civil rights leaders from across the United States convened on the Glynn courthouse to stand in prayer with the Arbery family. Among their ranks were Sharpton, Jackson, broadcast journalist Roland Martin and Martin Luther King., III, son of the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Caption
Annie Polite, 87, of Brunswick, Ga., walks with her walker in front of a protest march as part of a Wall of Prayer event outside the Glynn County Courthouse, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. The Rev. Al Sharpton organized the event after defense attorney Kevin Gough to objected to the presence of Black pastors in the courtroom. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Annie Polite, 87, of Brunswick, Ga., walks with her walker in front of a protest march as part of a Wall of Prayer event outside the Glynn County Courthouse, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. The Rev. Al Sharpton organized the event after defense attorney Kevin Gough to objected to the presence of Black pastors in the courtroom. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Caption
Annie Polite, 87, of Brunswick, Ga., walks with her walker in front of a protest march as part of a Wall of Prayer event outside the Glynn County Courthouse, Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. The Rev. Al Sharpton organized the event after defense attorney Kevin Gough to objected to the presence of Black pastors in the courtroom. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

Credit: Stephen B. Morton

That gathering was followed by additional inflammatory statements from Gough on Friday, bringing the tension surrounding the racial implications of the case to a fever pitch. During a conference about how to charge the jury deliberating in the case, Gough called the ongoing demonstrations “what a public lynching looks like in the 21st century.”

“This is not 1915. This is not 1923. There are not thousands of people outside with pitchforks and baseball bats,” Gough said. “But I would respectfully submit to the court that this is the 21st century equivalent. This case has been infected by things that have nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of these defendants.”

The statements came one day after the defense rested its case, marking the close of evidence. The defense presented its entire case in less than two days and called seven witnesses to the stand to testify, including Travis McMichael. State prosecutors rested their case on Tuesday after testimony from 23 witnesses.

Caption
Defendant Travis McMichael testifies under cross-examination by prosecutor Linda Dunikoski during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery at the Glynn County Courthouse on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. Greg McMichael, his son Travis, and neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan are charged with the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. (Sean Rayford/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: Sean Rayford

Defendant Travis McMichael testifies under cross-examination by prosecutor Linda Dunikoski during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery at the Glynn County Courthouse on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga.  Greg McMichael, his son Travis, and neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan are charged with the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery.  (Sean Rayford/Pool Photo via AP)
Caption
Defendant Travis McMichael testifies under cross-examination by prosecutor Linda Dunikoski during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery at the Glynn County Courthouse on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. Greg McMichael, his son Travis, and neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan are charged with the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. (Sean Rayford/Pool Photo via AP)

Credit: Sean Rayford

Credit: Sean Rayford

And in an abrupt fashion on a single afternoon, it marked the near-end of a murder trial fraught by a laborious, two-and-a-half-week jury selection process, news conferences from public safety officials detailing their plans to keep the peace during the proceedings and a familiar, heart-wrenching discussion of racial inequality that’s placed the national spotlight on Brunswick.

Arbery’s death lodged complaints of racist vigilantism, and many have have drawn parallels to the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial in Wisconsin. Rittenhouse killed two people and injured a third during at a 2020 protest over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. Like the younger McMichael, Rittenhouse took the stand in his own defense, saying he fired his AR-15 style rifle in self-defense during the demonstrations. The 18-year-old was acquitted on all counts Friday after nearly four days of deliberations.

Wayne Neal, the chairman of the Glynn County Board of Commissioners, acknowledged that the Arbery’s shooting put unwanted attention on his county. But he said the image that’s been created in the wake of the high-profile killing is inaccurate.

“The media would have you believe that this is a redneck, out-of-touch community. That’s not the way it is,” he said. “We work together. We all get along here, and this incident is just a horrible, horrible anomaly. It doesn’t speak to who we are. It speaks to incredibly bad judgment.”

Other local leaders hope he is correct. Closing arguments are to begin Monday, then the case goes to the jury.

Harvey said he hopes that the outcome of the case will be one that not only promotes justice but demonstrates racial equity.

“If there is an acquittal— I pray there’s not,” Harvey said, “I pray that the healing of this land will be something that will change all America. I pray if there’s an acquittal, that we are be able to deal with whatever comes.”

Outside the courthouse, overlooking the flood of clergy and civilians of all creeds, Harvey said simply, “Justice is on trial.”