The lead prosecutor in Monday’s closing arguments accused the three white defendants of chasing Ahmaud Arbery because he was Black, a decision that led to his shooting death on a Brunswick-area street Sunday afternoon in 2020.
The Glynn County murder trial is set to resume Tuesday with the state’s prosecutors expected to present a two-hour rebuttal following a day where the attorneys for father and son Greg and Travis McMichaels repeated claims of self-defense while making a lawful citizen’s arrest. Meanwhile, their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan’s attorney, distanced Bryan from the McMichaels’ decisions to bring their guns with them as they chased Arbery in their pickup trucks.
In her closing statement, Cobb County senior assistant district attorney Linda Dunikoski pressed that Arbery’s race as a factor for the defendants after spotting a “Black man running down the street” of the Brunswick neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020.
Until Monday, references to the racial tensions that pervade the case were largely kept out of the courtroom save for requests by Bryan’s attorney to bar Black pastors from comforting the Arbery family in the courtroom.
Travis McMichael testified last week that a neighbor tipped his father off about seeing Arbery in the Satilla Shores neighborhood after Arbery had previously been on a home construction site several times. The McMichaels say the neighborhood had been on edge about property crimes going back to 2019.
Dunikoski countered that after five minutes of being chased and cornered by the McMichaels and Bryan, Arbery’s only offenses that caused his pursuit were being a “looky-loo” several times at the home that was under construction and being Black.
McMichaels and Bryan reacted based on speculation instead of immediate knowledge that Arbery committed a crime that might have justified an attempted citizen’s arrest.
“They shot and killed him, not because he was a threat to them, but because he wouldn’t stop and talk to them,” she said.
Jason Sheffield, Travis McMichaels’ attorney, denied that Arbery was targeted due to his race. He also referred to the McMichaels questioning a homeless white man about whether he was involved in burglaries within the subdivision.
Defense attorneys argued Monday that enough evidence existed to suggest that Arbery was not just trespassing at the construction site on neighbor Larry English’s property, but could reasonably be suspected of burglary.
Arbery was not linked to any property crime in the neighborhood.
“We can all sit here right now and say what the state has said from the very beginning and what Travis himself recognizes: If he had only stayed home that day. If he just sat on the couch and fallen asleep with his kid that day,” Sheffield said. “Travis told you there’s not a day that goes by that he doesn’t think that exact same thing. But the law allows a citizen to make a citizens’ arrest.”
Russell Covey, a Georgia State University criminal law professor, said it’s been obvious that race is front and center leading up to and throughout the trial.
Bryan’s cell phone video showing the last moments of Arbery’s life ratcheted up national calls for justice after it depicted the shooting of an unarmed Black man in a racially divided coastal Georgia community. In response to the outrage, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over a case where initial prosecutors agreed a citizen’s arrest was justification.
The jury makeup has been criticized for only having one Black member in a case where race permeates the proceedings, even as Gough declared during selection he didn’t believe the case was about race.
Even after the state trial is over, the McMichaels and Bryan are due to stand trial in federal court on Feb. 7 on charges of murder and attempted kidnapping as well as a federal hate crime statute.
“It’s the ghost that’s been haunting this trial,” Covey said. “I can’t imagine that anybody could spend five minutes in this courtroom and not be aware that race is not an issue here.”
Greg McMichael’s attorney Laura Hogue said Arbery is not a victim, but rather a 25-year-old who made bad decisions that led to him showing up to Satilla Shores wearing shorts and “no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”
Hogue drew those gritty details from a medical examiner’s testimony earlier in the trial.
There can be little doubt that Arbery knew why the McMichaels were trying to detain him after being spotted by a neighbor near the open unsecured construction site, she said.
“A beautiful teenager with a broad smile and a crooked baseball cap can go astray,” Hogue said. “He can deteriorate and lose his way and years later he can begin creeping into a home that is not his own and running away instead of facing the consequences.”
Dunikoski denied that Arbery posed a threat. According to the McMichaels attorneys, Arbery would not have been shot if he had gone a different direction at the end of the chase.
A central question for the jury is whether the McMichael’s claims of self-defense during their confrontation with Arbery are justified.
“Three on one, two pickup trucks, two guns,” Dunikoski said. “Mr. Arbery, nothing in his pockets, not a cell phone, not a gun, not even an ID. They want you to believe that he was a danger to them.”
If you are the initial unjustified aggressor, you don’t get to claim self defense, she said.
“If you’re committing a felony against somebody you don’t get to claim self defense,” Dunikoski said.
Meanwhile, Bryan’s attorney also sought to distance his client from the McMichaels by saying Bryan did not know the McMichaels were carrying guns until the chase was ending.
It was mere seconds before the shooting that Bryan realized McMichaels were armed, and he cooperated with police, including letting them know he recorded the pursuit, attorney Kevin Gough said during his closing Monday.
The prosecution has painted Bryan as a willing participant in trying to corner and run Arbery off the road during the chase, saying he repeatedly bumped him with his pickup truck during the chase.
“Had Roddie Bryan stayed in bed today, if Roddie Bryan had stayed on his front porch, would Ahmaud Arbery be alive today?” Gough asked. “And the state’s theory, and I’m not saying it’s the case, but if the theory is these men, vigilantes harbouring some ill-will, what difference does it make if Mr. Bryan is there? Mr. Arbery can’t outrun bullets.”
The closing arguments come after the state called about two dozen witnesses to the stand, including multiple police officers and investigators who interacted with the McMichaels and Bryan.