Brunswick ― The three men convicted of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder chased the slain 25-year-old because of “racial assumption, racial resentment and racial anger,” a federal prosecutor told jurors Monday.
In his closing arguments, U.S. Justice Department counsel Christopher Perras asked the jury to convict Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan of chasing down Arbery on a public street and killing him because he was a Black man.
“There’s a big difference between being vigilant and being a vigilante,” Perras said, contending the three defendants were the latter. Their actions, he said, were “driven by pent-up racial anger.”
After hearing about four hours of closing arguments and getting instructions on the law by U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, the jury of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person began its deliberations at 3 p.m. They adjourned for the evening just before 6 p.m. and will resume deliberations Tuesday morning.
In their closing arguments, lawyers for the three defendants asked jurors to find their clients not guilty. They acknowledged all three defendants had expressed racist views in the past, but said Arbery’s skin color was not what motivated them to chase him through their subdivision two years ago.
“Would Travis McMichael have grabbed a gun and done this to a white guy?” his attorney, Amy Lee Copeland asked the jury. “The answer is yes.”
On Feb. 23, 2020, when Greg McMichael saw the unarmed Arbery running past his house, “he grabbed his son and his gun,” Perras said. When Bryan saw Arbery run past his house being chased by the McMichaels, he jumped in his truck under the assumption the Black man was the bad guy and the McMichaels were the good guys, he said.
“They hunted Ahmaud down like an animal,” Perras said. “Then they killed him and left him to bleed in the street like an animal. It was because of their actions, actions driven by a fatal dose of racial resentment and racial anger.”
The McMichaels and Bryan stand indicted of hate crimes and other counts, including attempted kidnapping and discharging a firearm during a crime of violence. If convicted, the three men face a possible sentence of life in prison. There is no parole in the federal system.
In November, a state court jury in Brunswick found the McMichaels and Bryan guilty of Arbery’s murder. The McMichaels were sentenced to life in state prison without the possibility of parole; Bryan was sentenced to life with the chance of parole.
The McMichaels set off after Arbery because they “associated Black people with criminality,” Perras said. “They had racial blinders on. ... They didn’t see a fellow human being like themselves. They saw a Black criminal, a sub-human savage.”
Perras recounted to the jury “five terrifying minutes” of the McMichaels and Bryan chasing Arbery through the Satilla Shores neighborhood. He also reminded the jury of the racially incendiary language and text messages the McMichaels and Bryan had made and which had been introduced into evidence.
Perras wondered aloud what Arbery had been doing when he stopped in the house under construction that sunny Sunday afternoon. Was he getting a drink of water from one of the two spigots? Was he assessing the progress of the home’s construction? Did he simply go inside “to be alone and to get away from it all?” the prosecutor asked.
“We’ll never know because these three men killed him,” Perras said.
The McMichaels and Bryan decided to pursue the young Black man without any evidence Arbery had done anything wrong, the prosecutor said.
When Arbery was finally cornered between Bryan’s truck and the McMichael’s truck, outside of which Travis stood with his shotgun, Arbery went around the other side of the McMichael’s truck putting it between him and the shotgun, Perras said.
But Travis McMichael “changed the equation” by coming around to confront Arbery, Perras said. Arbery, faced with “a life or death decision,” could have turned his back on McMichael in the hope he wouldn’t pull the trigger.
Instead, he decided “to fight for his life,” Perras said. “You can’t blame him for that.”
In her closing, Travis McMichael’s lawyer noted that there was no evidence that showed her client was a member of a hate or white supremacist group such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Acknowledging that McMichael had left behind a digital footprint of racially incendiary posts, Copeland told the jury, “This case isn’t to punish their beliefs even if you think they’re wrong.”
The defense attorney noted that prosecutors put into evidence 17 texts and social media posts made by McMichael that were racist in nature. And she noted none of his friends who received the messages tried to distance themselves from McMichael.
It looked like McMichael had been sharing his beliefs “with like-minded people,” Copeland said. “Is he playing to his audience? That’s what it seems to be.”
Interestingly, Copeland told jurors there had been no evidence presented at trial that McMichael uttered a racial slur on the day he shot and killed Arbery or ever spoke of Arbery’s death in racial terms.
At a pretrial hearing in state court, GBI Agent Richard Dial testified that, in an interview with agents after the shooting, Bryan said he heard McMichael say “(expletive) (n-word)” after Arbery collapsed to the ground. But this alleged statement was not presented in the state murder trial or the federal hate crimes trial. Because Bryan didn’t testify, Travis McMichael would not have been able to confront his accuser in court.
Copeland acknowledged the testimony from Kristie Ronquille, who knew McMichael when he was in the U.S. Coast Guard and who testified McMichael called her a “(n-word) lover” because she had dated a Black man.
But when asked by agents if she was surprised when she saw Bryan’s cellphone video of the fatal shooting, Ronquille said she wasn’t because McMichael was someone who would take the law into his own hands. Copeland said this was important because Ronquille didn’t tell agents that McMichael did what he did because Arbery was a Black man.
Defense attorney A.J. Balbo, who represents Greg McMichael, said of Arbery’s killing, “It was horrific. It was avoidable. It shouldn’t have happened.”
But it did not occur because Arbery was a Black man, Balbo said. It was because he was the man seen in the security videos entering Larry English’s home that was under construction.
McMichael also confronted a white man who was suspected as a possible burglar and who was living under a nearby bridge, Balbo said. And McMichael rented homes “to people of color, he rented to African-Americans.”
For that reason, it doesn’t make sense that he took off after Arbery because he was a Black man, Balbo said.
As for the evidence of racist remarks made by the three defendants, Balbo characterized it as “horrible, repugnant, vile statements and postings of things that would turn your stomach.” But he noted that “the vast majority” of it applies to Travis McMichael and Roddie Bryan, not Greg McMichael.
Bryan’s lawyer, Pete Theodocion, said it was “entirely reasonable” that Bryan thought Arbery had done something wrong when he saw him run past his house with the McMichaels in pursuit.
“This was not a random truck chasing a young Black man,” Theodocion said. “This was a truck he recognized.”
Bryan also heard the McMichaels yelling at Arbery, “Stop!”, Theodocion said. And Arbery was not crying out for help.
Bryan would have done the same thing “if this was a white person being chased, an Asian, a Hispanic, anyone,” the defense attorney said.
Theodocion said that Arbery was “not treated fairly, not at all.” But Bryan never wanted any physical harm done to him, the lawyer said.
Turning to the evidence of bigotry presented against Bryan, Theodocion said his client had made “ugly, disgusting racial slurs that’s nothing to be proud of. I don’t expect you to like it.”
And as to Bryan’s racist texts in opposition to interracial dating, Theodocion said, “It’s ignorance, it’s offensive. But it exists.”
Still, Bryan is not guilty of the federal crimes, Theodocion said.
“You know the government has not proven its case,” he said. “The evidence has not been there.”
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she’s optimistic they’ll have a “good verdict” by the second anniversary of her son’s murder, which is Wednesday. She sobbed in court as Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons used the men’s own social media posts and statements to police to convey what they may have been thinking as Arbery lay dying in the road.
“These defendants didn’t show Ahmaud Arbery the dignity a dog deserves when it gets hit by a car,” Lyons said.