Prosecutors say that the men — Travis McMichael, his son Greg McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan — were dangerous vigilantes who pursued Arbery without justification, jumping to conclusions about a “Black man running down the street” and used their pickup trucks to trap him in their suburban Georgia neighborhood.
“This isn’t the Wild West,” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said, rejecting defense claims that their clients were concerned residents attempting to make a citizen’s arrest.
Defense attorneys said the men believed that Arbery was a burglar and never set out to hurt him on Feb. 23, 2020. They were trying to stop Arbery for the police, they said, when Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense during a struggle.
“It is going to take courage to set aside what you think and feel … and to focus on the bare facts of this case,” Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, told jurors Monday.
Over 10 days of testimony, jurors heard from police officers, neighbors and experts with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Last week, Travis McMichael took the stand, choking up at times as he said Arbery struck him and grabbed for his shotgun during a confrontation. It is cellphone video of that confrontation — taken by Bryan — that triggered public outrage and condemnations when it was leaked in May 2020. The national attention pushed authorities to make arrests more than two months after the killing.
Now many Americans are awaiting the verdict and the message they say it will send about racial justice and fairness. The 12-member jury drew scrutiny even before testimony began when the defense struck all but one Black person from the final panel.
Regardless of the outcome of the trial, the men will face federal hate-crime charges, with trial set for next year. At a bond hearing, prosecutors highlighted texts and social media posts that they said showed potential racial motivation for the defendants’ actions. But they chose not to make the information part of the state case, opting only to suggest that race was a factor.
While the prosecution chose not to overtly make race a part of the trial, it could not be avoided. Defense attorney Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, objected to “high-profile members of the African American community” attending the trial in support of Arbery’s family, arguing they would influence the jury. He also accused a “woke left mob” of influencing the proceedings and repeatedly motioned for mistrials.
“It’s desperation,” Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s family, tweeted Tuesday, shortly before the jury left to begin deliberations. “These men are guilty on all counts.”
Arbery’s family also accused the defense of desperation after Laura Hogue, an attorney for Greg McMichael, used her closing argument to blame Arbery for his own death, saying he ran away “instead of facing the consequences” and “chose to fight.”
Hogue drew gasps in the courtroom Monday and prompted Arbery’s mother to briefly leave when she 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.
Dunikoski said Tuesday that Hogue’s argument was “standard, standard stuff” faulting the victim.
“I know you’re not going buy into that,” she told jurors. “It’s offensive.”
Page Pate, a Georgia criminal defense lawyer, said he was “shocked” at Hogue’s closing statements but surmised that Hogue and other defense lawyers believe some jurors might be receptive to arguments that Pate likened to commentary on Fox News.
Just one dissenting juror could deadlock the case, he noted. He said that the defense launched a surprisingly strong case but that he thinks the law favors the prosecution’s position that the accused lacked grounds for a citizen’s arrest.
“A mistrial in this case is a win for the defense,” said Pate, who knows the attorneys and has been following the trial closely. “So maybe [Hogue] is thinking that’s their best option here.”
Boston College law professor Robert Bloom said Travis McMichael’s self-defense arguments could play well with the jury, pointing to the recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in Wisconsin. The White teenager, whom prosecutors called a vigilante, testified tearfully that he shot three people — killing two — in self-defense.
Vigilante behavior is “not something the criminal justice system can deal with well,” Bloom said, adding it is up to legislatures to change laws.
The cellphone video shot by Bryan shows Arbery running down a road ahead of Bryan toward the McMichaels. Arbery passes their truck and then turns to run toward Travis McMichael. The truck obscures the men as a first shot is heard. Experts testified that Arbery was shot at point-blank range or nearly so.
Dunikoski said Tuesday that people cannot claim self-defense if they are the “initial unjustified aggressor,” are committing felonies or provoke other people to protect themselves. She argued the accused did all three as they chased Arbery for five minutes through their neighborhood of Satilla Shores, less than two miles from Arbery’s home.
“All he’s done is run away from you,” Dunikoski told Travis McMichael last week during cross-examination.
“Run past me, yes ma’am,” Travis McMichael replied.
“And you pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at him,” the prosecutor said.
The younger McMichael replied that he believed at that point that “this guy can be a threat and he is coming directly to me.”
He said he raised the weapon first to warn Arbery off, drawing on de-escalation training from his time in the Coast Guard. Defense lawyers emphasized that training in arguing that the McMichaels had “probable cause” to perform a citizen’s arrest. They said neighborhood residents knew Arbery not as an avid jogger but as the stranger who had entered an under-construction home several times over a period of months, often at night.
The McMichaels and Bryan are all charged as parties to aggravated assault, false imprisonment and two types of murder: malice murder, which requires intent to kill, and felony murder, in which someone commits a felony that causes a death. The jurors will return verdicts on each defendant separately and could find them guilty on some counts and not others.
Dunikoski argued all the defendants made Arbery’s death possible, turning to a sports metaphor in her closing remarks. Everyone on the winning Super Bowl team gets a ring, she said, from the quarterback to the guy on the bench. “Everybody is involved,” she said. “Everybody’s responsible.”
For Bryan, the judge instructed jurors that they may consider a reduced charge of simple assault, reckless conduct or reckless driving — all misdemeanors — instead of the charged felony of aggravated assault. Bryan’s attorney has maintained his client was only a witness and denied reports that he sought a late plea deal.
Each defendant faces a potential penalty of life in prison without parole if convicted on any of the murder charges. Prosecutors have not sought the death penalty.
The verdict could hinge on subtle but consequential distinctions in the meaning of Georgia’s old citizen’s-arrest statute — something the attorneys clashed over Tuesday. Georgia legislators significantly narrowed the law in response to Arbery’s death, but that does not affect the court case.
At the time of Arbery’s killing, state law required that a private citizen have “immediate knowledge” of a crime or “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion” of someone fleeing a felony offense.
Attorneys for the defendants objected repeatedly and called for a mistrial as Dunikoski told the jury that a citizen’s arrest is meant for “emergency situations.” She argued that such an arrest should be made only immediately following the offense or as the suspect flees directly afterward.
An attorney for the defense said Dunikoski was misrepresenting the law. The judge instructed the jury that a citizen’s arrest can occur “during escape” — which defense lawyers said allowed them to argue that the McMichaels and Bryan were apprehending a fleeing suspect for crimes that occurred before Feb. 23, 2020. Defense attorney Bob Rubin had warned last week that accepting Dunikoski’s view of the citizen’s-arrest law would amount to “gutting” his case.
Meanwhile, outside the courthouse Tuesday night, a diverse crowd of about 100 people gathered for a prayer vigil hosted by the Glynn Clergy for Equity. There were prayers in English and Hebrew and a moment of silence for Arbery.
“We are about to see the soul of this community,” the Rev. Paul McKenzie said. “The decision that will be made will reveal the soul of this community, and we need to pray for those jurors.”
Knowles reported from Washington.