BRUNSWICK, Ga. — The three white men who chased, cornered and killed Ahmaud Arbery two years ago in this coastal Georgia town knew only this about him: He was Black and he was running, federal prosecutors said Monday during closing arguments in their federal hate crimes trial.
Defense attorneys countered that Arbery was fatally shot in self-defense and had acted suspiciously during prior trips to the Satilla Shores neighborhood before the jury of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person was handed the case and sent into deliberations.
“These defendants didn’t show Ahmaud Arbery the dignity that a dog deserves when it gets hit by a vehicle,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons said during closing arguments, contending that Arbery’s killers – Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan – saw him not as a fellow human being but as a “savage” and other racial slurs used by the men to describe Black people.
After a five-day trial in which jurors heard more than a dozen witnesses testify to a pattern of racial animus by the McMichaels and Bryan, federal prosecutors argued in closing that the defendants not only acted on race but also as vigilantes.
Special Litigation Counsel Christopher Perras argued that when Gregory McMichael saw Arbery, “He didn’t call police, he grabbed his son and his gun and chased after him.”
The two defense attorneys each reiterated the trial was not about murder and argued prosecutors had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that their clients acted on race.
Amy Copeland, who represents Travis McMichael, told jurors there was no evidence her client used a racial slur on Feb. 23, 2020, the day of the killing. She also pointed out McMichael never spoke of Arbery in terms of race or used a slur when speaking of him. And Copeland told jurors the government did not present evidence McMichael belonged to a white supremacist group or that there were any complaints about him at his job.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, was heard sobbing as Copeland described the final moments of her son’s life during closing arguments.
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“This evidence is hard to hear,” Copeland said. “But the video reflects the McMichaels’ belief that Ahmaud Arbery got shot because he tried to take the shotgun away from (Travis McMichael).”
Gregory McMichael’s attorney, A.J. Balbo, told jurors there wasn’t sufficient evidence showing his client acted on race while noting that the elder McMichael also hadn’t used a racial slur in text messages or on social media.
“The vast majority of evidence applies to two defendants and their names are not Gregory McMichael,” Balbo said.
Without direct evidence that the three men held hatred specifically for Arbery, however, proving hate as a motivating factor in his murder is difficult, Brunswick-based attorney Page Pate told the Savannah Morning News of the USA TODAY Network.
“You have to get inside someone’s mind, someone’s heart,” said Pate, who is not involved in the case.
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Evidence in the trial included text messages from Travis McMichael and Bryan that used racial slurs when referring to Black people; Bryan’s disapproval of his daughter dating a Black man; and Travis McMichael proclaiming he was happy he didn’t work around Black people and thought Black criminals should be killed
One witness also testified to Gregory McMichael’s disgust with the late civil rights champion Julian Bond, saying he had once told her, “I wish he’d died years ago.” The witness went on to testify that Gregory McMichael also said he wished all Black people would die.
The defendants were convicted of murder last fall in a state trial and sentenced to life in prison, but state prosecutors did not present evidence the murder was racially motivated – evidence that is central to the federal prosecutors’ case. All three men have pleaded not guilty.
Raisa Habersham is a watchdog and investigative reporter for the Savannah Morning News. Contact her at email@example.com.