Attorney Laura Hogue, who represents Greg McMichael, focused on Arbery’s actions in February 2020. The defense has argued its clients had solid reason to suspect Arbery of burglary and seemed to allude Monday to the criminal record that a judge had ruled irrelevant and inadmissible — speaking of a teenager who would “deteriorate and lose his way.”
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, left the courtroom after Hogue said that “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 khaki shorts, with no socks to cover his long dirty toenails,” referring to the neighborhood where he was killed.
“Wow,” Cooper-Jones said, before bolting from her seat and briefly leaving.
Arbery’s killing in coastal Georgia — in a suburban neighborhood a couple miles from his home — went without arrests for more than two months last year. A previous prosecutor said the defendants were attempting a legitimate citizen’s arrest when Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense. Then leaked video of the incident sparked protests and national demands for consequences, shortly before the police killing of George Floyd ignited a larger racial justice movement.
Jurors heard closing arguments Monday after 10 days of witness testimony in a case that many view as a test of the justice system’s regard for Black lives.
Hogue anticipated that her comments about Arbery would be “unpopular,” and argued that he died because he “chose to fight” — running toward Travis McMichael and his shotgun in the viral video at the heart of the case. Dunikoski likened the defendants to school bullies who trapped and threatened their victim and then tried to claim self-defense when, outnumbered, Arbery finally pushed back.
“What did Mr. Arbery do?” Dunikoski said. “He ran away. For five minutes.”
For some, the Rittenhouse verdict stoked fears about White vigilantism — and raised questions about who gets to claim self-defense. Activists say acquittals for the men who confronted Arbery could deepen beliefs the justice system cuts breaks to White men with guns.
The McMichaels have said they recognized Arbery from surveillance footage of an under-construction home that Arbery entered several times in the months leading up to the shooting. Travis McMichael also said he saw Arbery at the property on the night of Feb. 11, 2020, and reported the encounter to police.
Arbery was never seen taking anything from the property, but Travis McMichael said he heard things went missing from a boat there and wanted to stop the intruder for police. He testified that his suspicions grew as Arbery ran away from him on Feb. 23, 2020, never speaking.
Georgia’s law on citizen’s arrest, which has been overhauled since Arbery’s death, required “immediate knowledge” of a crime or “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion” of someone fleeing a felony offense.
Dunikoski, who will give her final rebuttal Tuesday morning, acknowledged that Arbery had entered the unfinished home unauthorized. But she called him nothing more than a “looky-loo,” saying that trespassing — a misdemeanor — would not legally justify the defendants’ actions. She noted that Travis McMichael did not tell police about the alleged thefts from a boat that he said bolstered his belief Arbery was a burglar.
Dunikoski urged skepticism of Travis McMichael’s testimony last week, which differed from his early statements to police on several key points. The younger McMichael told police last year that he was not sure if Arbery grabbed his weapon, but testified that he fired when Arbery struck him, grabbed his shotgun and seemed poised to overpower him.
“Use your common sense,” Dunikoski told the jury repeatedly Monday, asking jurors at one point: “Do you think all this was completely made up for trial?”
Cellphone video shot by Bryan, which pushed the case into the national spotlight, shows Arbery running by the McMichaels’ truck and then toward Travis McMichael. They struggle on-camera, but the vehicle blocks them as the first shot rings out. A medical examiner found that Arbery was shot at contact or near-contact range.
The defendants are charged with aggravated assault, false imprisonment and two kinds of murder: malice murder, which involves intent to kill, and felony murder, which involves a felony that causes someone’s death. Defense attorneys said Monday that their clients never set out to kill Arbery and did not cause the final violent confrontation.
Jason Sheffield, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, described his client Monday as a father and former Coast Guard officer who wanted to protect a community on edge about crime. “If this was a case about wanting to murder a Black jogger … Travis would not have reacted the way he reacted,” he said.
While the younger McMichael pulled the trigger, Dunikoski argued that all three of the accused played a crucial role in Arbery’s killing by trapping him.
“Everybody is involved,” Dunikoski said. “Everybody’s responsible. That’s what the law says.”
Outside the Glynn County courthouse Monday, residents and demonstrators predicted an uproar if the jury — 11 White people and one Black man — were to acquit the defendants.
“I think it would open the flood gates to protests in a lot of different places, and what that protest brings is another question,” said John Perry, pastor of Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church and the former head of the Brunswick NAACP. He predicted “easily 10,000 people gathering here.”
Members of Black gun rights groups circled the courthouse Monday, saying they were there to protect demonstrators and exercise their Second Amendment rights. Musician and activist Darrell Kelley and members of the New Black Panther Party brought a casket with a fiberglass mannequin, which bore the names of Black Americans killed by police or in confrontations with allegedly racist motives.
“America right now … their justice system is on trial,” said Nasiy Nasir X, a leader of the Minnesota-based Lion of Judah Armed Forces, who walked around the courthouse with an assault-style rifle. “And the reason why it’s on trial is our beloved brother Ahmaud Arbery was shot dead in the streets, like he was an animal, by three White vigilantes.”
While prosecutors have avoided explicit allegations of racial bias in Arbery’s killing, issues of race have pervaded the trial — starting with jury selection, when the defense struck all but one Black person deemed qualified to serve. The prosecution protested, but the judge said defense attorneys were able to give “race-neutral” reasons for their choices — leaving a panel notably less diverse than the community.
A defense attorney for Bryan, Kevin Gough, unsuccessfully pushed to bar “Black pastors” from the courtroom, saying they could influence jurors, and other lawyers have expressed concerns that the national conversation about the trial would seep into the legal case.
“This is what a public lynching looks like in the 21st century,” Gough said Friday as he made his latest objection to demonstrators outside the courthouse and high-profile guests of Arbery’s family in the courtroom.
Arbery’s mother and her lawyer said late last week that Gough sought an 11th-hour plea deal for Bryan and that prosecutors turned it down. Gough denied the claim.
Florida defense lawyer Mark O’Mara, who represented George Zimmerman in the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin, said he sees surface-level parallels to the case of Zimmerman, who was famously acquitted in a case that helped to launch the Black Lives Matter movement. Many denounced Zimmerman as a vigilante who racially profiled, chased and shot a Black 17-year-old who was unarmed. Lawyers for Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, argued successfully that the Florida man killed Martin in self-defense after the teenager attacked him.
But even before arguments began, O’Mara said he thought a panel of law professors would vote to convict in Arbery’s killing because they would view the defendants as the “aggressors.” He said pointing a shotgun at someone constitutes an aggravated assault.
“Did they see that he was trespassing in some house …? Great,” O’Mara said. “But even that’s not the type of crime that should lead to a citizen’s arrest with firearms.”
Margaret Coker in Brunswick, Ga., contributed to this report. Knowles reported from Washington.