The arguments unfolded before a disproportionate white jury after 10 days of testimony that completed last week, not long after the man who shot Arbery testified that he pressed the trigger in self-defense.
Arbery’s killings became part of a larger national showdown over racial injustice after a graphic video of his death leaked online two months later. Although prosecutors did not claim that racism motivated the killing, federal authorities have accused all three men of hate crimes, claiming that they hunted and killed Arbery because he was black.
Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael seized weapons and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after seeing him run in their neighborhood on February 23, 2020. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, participated in the hunt and recorded the video of Travis McMichael, who opened fire as Arbery threw blows and grabbed his shotgun.
No one was charged with the murder until Bryan’s video was leaked and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police. All three men face charges killings and other charges.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told the jury that the defendants had no evidence that Arbery had committed crimes in their neighborhood, but instead acted on assumptions based on gossip from the neighborhood and speculative posts on social media.
“They made the decision to attack Ahmaud Arbery in their driveways because he was a black man running down the street,” Dunikoski said. She added: “They shot and killed him. Not because he was a threat to them. But because he would not stop and talk to them.”
Defense attorneys say the men suspected Arbery had broken into a house under construction and intended to keep him until police arrived. Security cameras recorded Arbery inside the house five times, but none of the videos showed him stealing or damaging anything.
Dunikoski said McMichaels and Bryan chased Arbery for five minutes by using their trucks to cut him off, drive him off the road and otherwise prevent him from escaping. And she repeated Greg Michael’s words to local police after the shooting that Arbery was “caught like a rat.”
Bryan picked up Travis McMichael, who was standing with a shotgun outside the driver’s side of his truck at idle as Arbery approached on foot, and then he ran around in the passenger side. They met in front of the truck, which blocked the camera’s view as Travis McMichael fired the first of three shotgun shells. The video shows Arbery hitting him and grabbing the gun while two more shots are fired, after which Arbery turns to try to run again before falling face down on the street.
“He chose to fight,” said Laura Hogue, a lawyer for Greg McMichael. She said Arbery decided “for no reason whatsoever to run towards a man carrying a shotgun and leave him no alternative but to be put in a position to kill him.”
Referring to a smiling image of Arbery, the jury had been shown at the trial, the Hogue jury told: “A handsome teenager with a wide smile in a crooked baseball cap may go astray … And years later he may end up crawling into a home that is not his own and ran away instead of facing the consequences. ”
Bryan’s lawyer, Kevin Gough, suggested that Arbery should have shouted for help if he was being hunted unfairly.
“Why does he not shout: ‘Hey, someone’s calling 911! There are crazy people after me, “Gough said.” Maybe it’s because Mr. Arbery does not want help. “
Gough said Bryan did not know McMichaels had guns until moments before the shooting. And he suggested that a higher power guide Bryan to join the pursuit so he could record the shooting on his phone.
“You can call it karma. You can call it destiny. I would call it divine providence,” Gough said. “There is someone who guides Mr. Bryan, whether it is a conscious thought process or not. Something is driving Mr Bryan down this street to document what’s going on. “
Sheffield, who represents Travis McMichael, said his client never wanted to shoot Arbery, but was forced to make a decision on life or death when Arbery attacked him in front of the truck.
He said residents of Satilla Shores were already nervous during reports of thefts and suspicious people in the neighborhood. He said Arbery’s frequent visits to the unfinished home made it reasonable to suspect that he had stolen items from a boat that the house owner kept in the doorless garage shortly before he installed the cameras.
Then Travis McMichael had his own “horrific experience,” Sheffield said, “when he encountered Arbery in the yard at night 12 days before the shooting. He breathlessly told a 911 sender that Arbery had grabbed out of his pocket as if he had a gun when confronted.
Dunikoski noted that Arbery never threatened McMichaels during the hunt, and he carried no weapons.
“You can not take a gun to a fist fight. That’s unfair, isn’t it?” said the prosecutor.
She said it was Travis McMichael who attacked Arbery – first with his truck, then by pointing a shotgun at him as Arbery ran towards him.
“They can not invoke self-defense under the law because they were the first, unjustified aggressors,” Dunikoski said, “and they started this.”
Arbery had enrolled in a technical school and was preparing to study to be an electrician just like his uncles when he was killed.