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Defense attorney in Ahmaud Arbery’s killing objects to presence of Black pastors in courtroom

Defense attorney Kevin Gough raised concerns on Nov. 11 about the Rev. Al Sharpton’s appearance in court during the trial for the death of Ahmaud Arbery. (Video: AP)

A defense attorney in the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery took issue Thursday with the courtroom presence of the Rev. Al Sharpton, a nationally known civil rights leader, saying it was “intimidating” to bring in “high-profile members of the African American community.”

“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here” to sit with Arbery’s family, Kevin Gough said, saying it amounted to an attempt to influence the jury. He later seemed to launch into a comparison, saying, “If a bunch of folks came in here dressed like Colonel Sanders with white masks sitting in the back, that would be — "

The judge cut him off.

Judge Timothy Walmsley dismissed Gough’s complaint, saying that Sharpton did not cause a disruption and that he would not exclude respectful members of the public.

“Let’s not overstate what’s going on here, Mr. Gough,” Walmsley said.

Race has been at the center of public discussion about the case, in which three White men have been charged with murder for the February 2020 death of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man. Defense attorneys have pushed back on characterizations of their clients as racist vigilantes who hunted down Arbery, saying they were concerned citizens who wanted to help neighbors rattled by break-ins and thefts. They are seeking to show that the defendants had grounds to conduct a “citizen’s arrest.”

Concerns about race were further amplified during jury selection for the trial, which resulted in one Black man and 11 White people selected to hear the case.

Appearing in court Friday after his “Black pastor” objection drew criticism, Gough offered his “apologies to anyone who might have inadvertently been offended.” He said that if his statements earlier were “overly broad," he would follow up with a more specific request putting his concerns into “proper context.”

Sharpton said he attended the trial on Wednesday at the invitation of Arbery’s parents and conducted a prayer vigil with them outside of the courthouse in Brunswick, Ga.

“The arrogant insensitivity of attorney Kevin Gough in asking a judge to bar me or any minister of the family’s choice underscores the disregard for the value of the human life lost and the grieving of a family in need [of] spiritual and community support,” Sharpton said in the statement. “This is pouring salt into their wounds.”

In a further rebuke Friday, Sharpton called for “clergy across ecumenical lines” to meet him next Thursday outside Glynn County courthouse, along with Arbery’s parents and their lawyers.

Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, called Gough’s objections “disturbing” in an interview with The Post. “When I heard defense attorney Gough say that, it was unreal,” she said. “But sitting in the courtroom day after day, the things that I hear are just unreal as well. So nothing surprises me.”

Gough’s objection came on the fifth day of witness testimony in the trial of Travis McMichael; his father, Greg McMichael; and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan. Gough is Bryan’s attorney.

The defendants have pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, false imprisonment and aggravated assault, and Travis McMichael has said he fired at Arbery in self-defense.

The day was dominated by the recorded deposition of Larry English, a neighbor of the three men whose partially built home Arbery was seen entering moments before the McMichaels chased and killed him. English recounted his alarm in the months leading up to the shooting as Arbery and others were filmed visiting his unfinished home at night, and said he had given another neighbor permission to help police catch intruders on his property.

Seemingly reluctant to testify in the case that spurred outrage last year, English told prosecutors that he never saw Arbery take anything from his under-construction property, and he certainly never wished Arbery harm. Police found no items on Arbery’s body in February 2020, and his family says the young man was racially profiled while jogging a couple of miles from home in coastal Georgia.

But the defense zeroed in on English’s statements in the months leading up to Arbery’s killing. He told police that the person later identified as Arbery was “plundering around,” attorney Bob Rubin said, and that he looked into a boat where items had recently gone missing. The defendants’ citizen’s arrest argument could hinge on whether they reasonably suspected Arbery of intending to steal — because they legally cannot justify a citizen’s arrest with secondhand suspicions of a misdemeanor such as trespassing.

Defense lawyers also emphasized that English sought help from other neighbors in the suburban community of Satilla Shores, where he did not live but was building a getaway home. He shared video footage of Arbery and, after one incident, called a neighbor rather than police — because he wanted a quick response to an elusive intruder, English testified.

In text messages, neighbor Diego Perez promised English he would “keep an eye out and make the rounds in the evening before I go to bed,” noting that he had had tools stolen. Perez said that if he spotted someone, he might be able to “intercept them or pen them up for the police.” He said he could enter the property with English’s blessing.

“You have my permission,” English replied, according to messages read during his deposition. He did not testify Thursday, citing health concerns, and often told attorneys that he could not remember the events they went through in hours-long detail.

The case garnered national attention and comparisons to a lynching last year after leaked video showed Arbery running toward the McMichaels, who were armed. Passing the defendants’ truck, Arbery turned toward Travis McMichael, and the two struggled as Arbery was shot.

Jurors have seen that viral cellphone footage — but both the prosecution and the defense have emphasized there is much more to the case, from surveillance footage to 911 calls to body-camera video capturing Arbery’s dying breaths in the middle of the road. Jurors also heard this week from a slew of neighbors and police, including the first officers at the scene on Feb. 23, 2020.

Arbery was shot after a five-minute chase that the prosecution has called unjustified by vague concerns about crime. Prosecutors have repeatedly noted that Arbery was unarmed and lacked even a cellphone to call for help.

‘I’ll blow your ... head off’: Prosecution says shooter’s father threatened Ahmaud Arbery before killing

To perform a citizen’s arrest, the defendants needed either “immediate knowledge” of a crime or “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion” of someone fleeing a felony offense. Arbery’s killing fueled a successful bipartisan effort to overhaul Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute, but those changes do not affect the murder trial.

English said he first called 911 about his under-construction property in Satilla Shores in October 2020, after video showed a man — later identified as Arbery — entering around 10 p.m.

“I’ve got a trespasser here,” English told the authorities. “He’s a colored guy,” he added, launching into a description.

Other people also walked onto the property, English testified, including a couple who appeared to be White and who were filmed entering at night in November 2020. English called the police to report them.

But Arbery stuck out for entering the property several times over the course of a few months, English said.

Testifying Wednesday, Glynn County police Sgt. Roderic Nohilly recounted how Greg McMichael told police Arbery was “trapped like a rat.”

“I think he was wanting to flee and he realized that something, you know, he was not going to get away,” the elder McMichael said, according to an interview transcript.

The defendant’s explanation of his suspicions about Arbery changed over the course of that day, according to testimony. Officer Jeff Brandeberry said this week that Greg McMichael initially overstated his knowledge of Arbery’s activities, telling authorities that the young man “gets caught on video cameras every third or fourth night breaking into places.”

Speaking again with police later in the day, Greg McMichael described only “two or three videos” of Arbery “breaking into” or “wandering” into one home — the property under construction.

Just before the shooting, he had called 911 but, as prosecutors noted, did not specify an alleged crime: “I’m out here at Satilla Shores,” Greg McMichael said. “There’s a Black male running down the street.”

The trial in Arbery’s killing is seen by many as a high-profile test of the justice system’s fairness to Black Americans, and demonstrators gathered at the Brunswick, Ga., courthouse last month. Some stayed to support Arbery’s family through weeks of jury selection and now testimony. On Wednesday, prominent civil rights lawyer Ben Crump spoke outside court during a lunch break in the proceedings and linked the case to that of other Black Americans whose killings in 2020 sparked racial justice protests, including Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.

“We are fighting to have a better America,” he said. “A more just America.”

Drea Cornejo contributed to this report.

Read more:

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