Closing arguments are set to begin Monday in the federal hate crimes trial of the three White men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia two years ago.
After four days of testimony from 21 witnesses – only one for the defense – the government and defense teams rested their cases Friday, with several prosecution witnesses testifying the defendants used racist language in messages and conversation.
Travis McMichael; his father, Gregory McMichael; and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted in a state court in November of felony murder and other charges for the February 2020 killing of Arbery, a Black man, after they chased him in a neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia.
The jury in the federal trial in Brunswick will decide whether Arbery was killed because of the color of his skin. The three men are each charged with interference with rights – a hate crime – and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels also face charges related to the use of firearms during a violent crime.
The defendants, who pleaded not guilty in this trial, are already serving life sentences in prison for the murder convictions, though Bryan is eligible for parole after serving 30 years, and each plan to appeal the verdicts. Convictions in this trial could bring steep fines and more life sentences.
Federal prosecutors and Arbery’s family have said he was out for a jog when he was killed. Defense attorneys in the state trial contended the McMichaels, suspecting Arbery of trespassing multiple times at an under-construction home, pursued him through neighborhood streets to conduct a citizen’s arrest. Travis McMichael argued he shot Arbery in self-defense as they wrestled over McMichael’s shotgun.
Bryan had pursued Arbery with his own vehicle and recorded video of the pursuit and shooting.
Prosecutors at the state trial said Arbery was at the construction site several times including the day of the shooting, but always without breaking in or taking anything. They argued the pursuers acted on rumors of wrongdoing; that White people visited the site apparently without being chased; and that the pursuers did not actually see Arbery at the site that day and had no immediate knowledge he’d committed a crime.
Prosecution witnesses testified about racial slurs from defendants
In the hate crimes trial, prosecutors called several witnesses last week who testified the men had used racial slurs in dialogue or in texts and social media.
One witness testified that Gregory McMichael, in talking about Black people in 2015, said “I wish they’d all die,” and “all these Blacks are nothing but trouble.”
The witness said this was followed by an “angry rant” against Black people lasting about two minutes, which she described as “really shocking.”
An FBI intelligence analyst testified texts and social media messages taken from the phones of Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan included racist insults about African Americans.
One witness was so upset recalling her interactions with the McMichaels, she left the stand in tears.
The defense’s only witness last week was a resident of the Satilla Shores neighborhood where Arbery was killed and where the defendants lived. The witness said she had lived in the neighborhood for 48 years but had never met the McMichaels or Bryan.
Her testimony was connected to a non-emergency call Gregory McMichael made about a White man possibly living under a bridge near the neighborhood – a defense effort to show the elder McMichael was worried about anyone, regardless of race, who may have been a threat to his neighborhood.
The defense has argued while the men may have used racist language, Arbery’s race was not a motivation in the fatal incident.
The panel is made up of eight White jurors, three Black jurors, and one Hispanic juror, according to details provided in court. Three White people and one Pacific Islander have also been selected as alternates.
The prosecution argues defendants followed Arbery because of perceptions about Black people
The defense argued at the state murder trial that the pursuit began when the elder McMichael saw Arbery running from the direction of the under-construction home and that he believed he matched the description of someone who’d been recorded there previously – and of someone, Travis McMichael had encountered and called police about 12 nights earlier.
Unbeknownst to the McMichaels on the day of the shooting, a neighbor had just called police to report that Arbery was at the construction site alone and that Arbery ran as the neighbor called, according to testimony.
The prosecution in the murder trial conceded surveillance videos did show Arbery at the construction site multiple times, including the day he was killed, but said that he never broke in or took anything.
During the murder trial, witnesses testified that the McMichaels did not know for certain that Arbery was at the site that day, or whether the man in the videos had ever taken anything.
In opening statements for the hate crime trial, a prosecutor said the defendants previously used racist language and followed Arbery because of their perceptions of Black people.
“At the end of the day, the evidence, in this case, will prove that if Ahmaud Arbery had been White, he would have gone for a jog, checked out a cool house under construction, and been home in time for Sunday supper,” Assistant US Attorney Barbara Bernstein told the jury last week. “Instead, he went out for a jog and ended up running for his life.”
The defendants’ attorneys, making separate opening statements last week, acknowledged the men had used racist language – but said that their actions toward Arbery were not related to race.
“Greg and Travis McMichael followed Ahmaud Arbery not because he was a Black man, but because he was the man who had been illegally entering the house that was under construction,” A.J. Balbo, Gregory McMichael’s defense attorney, said last week.