A predominantly white jury began deliberations Monday afternoon as to whether to find Ahmaud Arbery’s three killers guilty of federal hate crimes after a weeklong trial that probes the thorny questions of racially motivated violence, vigilantism and toxic stereotypes of criminality and Black Americans.
The defendants — Travis McMichael, 36; his father, Gregory McMichael, 66; and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52 — have already been convicted of murder in state court and sentenced to life in prison. Their actions on Feb. 23, 2020, changed Georgia state law and focused an uncomfortable spotlight on Brunswick and Glynn County amid the nation’s ongoing conversation about racial inequality.
Arbery’s name became entwined with racial justice protests that swept the country after an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, was killed by a white policeman. The trial at Brunswick’s federal courthouse, however, is the first U.S. government prosecution of hate crimes associated with the disturbingly long list of recent high-profile killings of Black Americans.
All three defendants from the Satilla Shores neighborhood are charged with one count of interference with Arbery’s civil rights and with one count of attempted kidnapping for threatening him while he was jogging on a public street during a Sunday afternoon two years ago. The McMichaels were also charged with one count each of using, carrying, and brandishing a firearm, and Travis McMichael faces an additional count of discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. Each man has pleaded not guilty.
The three were convicted in state court of murder on Nov. 24, 2021, and face life in prison for that crime. A federal conviction on any of these charges would add additional time onto those previous sentences — and ensure they are branded racist killers, not simply convicted murderers.
After presenting a week’s worth of evidence about racist slurs and attitudes, federal prosecutors urged the 12 residents of the Southern District of Georgia to find all three defendants guilty of acting out violently because of Arbery’s skin color and because of their deep hatred for Black Americans.
“It was about race — racial assumptions, racial resentment and racist anger,” Christopher Perras, an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division, told the jury during closing arguments. “All three of them saw a Black man and they thought the worst of him.”
The three lawyers representing the defendants spent their closing statements Monday morning poking holes in the government’s case, using the technical language of the federal law and the intricacies of the charges to tell the jury that there was still reasonable doubt about their clients’ guilt.
The attorneys did not deny that the defendants were racist. They even told the jury they might dislike the men, or thought they did something wrong. But that didn’t matter, they said. As Travis McMichael’s lawyer argued, her client would have chased anyone that day, regardless of color, because he was determined to defend his neighbors from any perceived threat.
“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.”
Basic facts of the case aren’t disputed. The McMichaels armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after he was spotted running past their home on a Sunday afternoon. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded the video of Travis McMichael firing the fatal shots at point-blank range.
What the jury in this case will decide is whether the three men acted from a racial motive and racial hatred.
What the jury doesn’t know and can’t consider during their deliberations is the fact that the McMichaels were ready to plead guilty to one count of the hate crimes indictment in exchange of spending 30 years in a federal prison before they served time in a Georgia state penitentiary. That plea deal fell apart two weeks ago before the trial began when Judge Wood rejected the terms of the sentencing.
At the heart of the prosecutors’ case are the reams of digital evidence that FBI agents uncovered from the McMichaels’ and Bryan’s social media postings and cell phones. A terrorist analyst for the FBI testified to approximately two dozen racist text messages and social media posts preceding the shooting.
Some witnesses testified about hearing the McMichaels’ racist statements firsthand. A woman who served under Travis McMichael in the U.S. Coast Guard said he called her a “n——r lover” after learning she had once dated a Black man.
Another woman testified Greg McMichael had ranted angrily about Black people while he was working as an investigator for the Brunswick-area district attorney. When she told him of the death of civil rights activist and former Georgia legislator Julian Bond, the elder McMichael said: “All those Blacks are nothing but trouble” and commented that they should be “put in the ground.”
Only one of the three defense lawyers, the man representing Greg McMichael, mounted a defense.
American courts do not require defendants to put up any defense — instead the burden of guilt is put entirely on the prosecutor. Jurors will have to determine whether prosecutors succeeded in meeting that high bar linking the three men’s views of Black people with their actions on Feb. 23, 2020, when they chased and killed Arbery.
A.J. Balbo, a federal criminal defense lawyer from Richmond Hill, raised the issue of Greg and Travis previously confronting a white homeless man who they believed was acting suspiciously in the area of the Satilla Shores neighborhood.
The inference, according to Balbo in his closing statements, is that the father and son might have had vigilante tendencies, but those tendencies were race neutral.
The jury of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person, as well as four alternates who are white have been sequestered throughout the trial. They hail from towns as far away as Augusta, a 3 ½-hour drive north of Brunswick; Dublin, more than a 2-hour drive on the freeway towards Macon; Tybee Island and Statesboro.
Judge Lisa Wood held court on Monday despite the President’s Day federal holiday to minimize the time the jury would have to spend away from their families.
Wednesday will be the second anniversary of Arbery’s murder. Brunswick and Glynn County will be holding commemorations in his memory. Prosecutors’ and defense attorneys’ closing statements ended at 2:23 p.m. Monday – an unusual coincidence as the numbers coincide with the date of Arbery’s death: 2/23/2020.