(ATLANTA) — A jury began deliberations Monday in the federal hate-crime trial of three white Georgia men in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, with a prosecutor calling them “vigilantes” fueled by pent-up anger for Black people and defense attorneys portraying them as vigilant citizens concerned about protecting their neighborhood from crime.
The U.S. District Court jury in Brunswick, Georgia, started weighing the evidence against 64-year-old retired police officer Gregory McMichael, his 36-year-old son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, who were all convicted in state court last year of murdering the 25-year-old Black jogger.
The jury received the case at about 3 p.m. ET after hearing hours of closing arguments.
The McMichaels and Bryan are each charged with one count of interference of Arbery’s civil rights and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels are also charged with using, carrying and brandishing a firearm in relation to a crime of violence, and Travis McMichael faces an additional count of using a firearm in relation to a violent crime.
They have all pleaded not guilty.
If convicted, the men could be sentenced to life in prison. All three are already serving life sentences, the McMichaels without the possibility of parole, after a state jury convicted them last year of murder.
‘Vigilantes’ motivated by hate
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher Perras told the jury the defendants were “vigilantes.”
“When Greg McMichael saw Ahmaud Arbery jogging by his house and Greg suspected that Ahmaud was up to no good, he didn’t grab his phone and call the police. He grabbed his son and his gun and chased after him,” he said.
He said that when the pursuit went by Bryan’s home, Bryan assumed “that the Black guy must be the bad guy and the white guys are the good guys.”
Perras scoffed at defense claims that the McMichaels pursued Arbery because they had previously seen him on surveillance video repeatedly trespassing inside a home under construction in their neighborhood.
“When you peel away the defendants’ excuses and you follow the evidence, it wasn’t about trespassing and it wasn’t about neighborhood crime. It was about race,” Perras said. “Racial assumptions, racial resentment and racial anger.”
Perras added that “all three defendants saw a young Black man in their neighborhood and they thought the worst of him.”
‘This is not a murder trial’
Travis McMichael’s attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, countered that prosecutors failed to prove that racial animus motivated the lethal actions her client took against Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020.
“The government argued about the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in its closing argument,” Copeland told the jury. “This is not a murder case, it’s not an aggravated assault case. You are here today only to determine only the crimes charged in the indictment.”
She said the government must prove four elements of the hate crime statute: that there was a threatened use of force, that the defendants tried to willfully injure Arbery, that the crime happened because of race, and that it happened because Arbery was enjoying the use of a public street.
Copeland told the jury that the government’s prosecutors made a big deal about her client’s history of posting on social media and texting racial slurs to describe Black people.
Copeland noted that the 17 racially charged text messages and Facebook posts she conceded Travis McMichael made between 2013 and 2020 had nothing to do with the Arbery killing. She said the evidence shows that Travis McMichael never made racial statements to Arbery or the police on the day of the fatal shooting.
She said Travis McMichael’s digital footprint only proves he made derogatory statements in mostly private exchanges with “like-minded” people.” In his online posts, Travis McMichael was “playing to his audience,” Copeland said.
“This case is not about the rightness of the beliefs or whether these beliefs should be punished. You can’t use it to judge his character, the case isn’t to punish for beliefs even if you think they’re wrong,” she said.
Copeland told the jury that the government failed to present any evidence of prior circumstances of racial violence on the part of Travis McMichael or any evidence that he was a member of a white supremacist group.
Copeland said prosecutors also did not prove the grounds for the kidnapping charge, arguing Travis McMichael gave Arbery the opportunity to run away only to have Arbery charge toward him and engage in a struggle over McMichael’s pump-action shotgun.
“Mr. Arbery got shot because he tried to take Travis’ shotgun away from him,” Copeland said.
She asked the jury to find Travis McMichael not guilty of all the charges.
Gregory McMichael’s attorney, A.J. Balbo, told the jury that federal prosecutors didn’t present a shred of evidence showing that his client’s text messages or social media posts contained any evidence of racial animus, although he conceded the government’s investigators couldn’t get into his encrypted cellphone.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this case is hard, hard first of all because it involves the death of a young man,” Balbo told the jury. “It was horrific because it shouldn’t have happened.”
Balbo said Gregory McMichael had no hesitation renting properties to Black people while at the same time acknowledging the elder McMichael used rude language to describe a Black tenant. He said that during his long career in law enforcement, Gregory McMichael never received a complaint against him of being racist.
Balbo, too, asked the jury to acquit Gregory McMichael on all charges.
Bryan’s lawyer, J. Pete Theodocion, told the jury that Bryan would have reacted the same way had he seen the McMichaels chasing a white man, an Asian person or a person of any other race.
Theodocion said Bryan was not trying to be “Johnny Law Enforcement” when he joined the chase of Arbery. He said Bryan’s suspicions of Arbery were “entirely reasonable” considering that he heard the McMichaels yelling at Arbery to stop and that they wanted to talk to him.
“His instincts told him people do not get chased like that unless they’ve done something wrong,” Theodocion said of Bryan.
Theodocian accepted that Bryan did not approve of a relationship his daughter had with a Black man, saying that the racial slurs he used to vent his anger were “ignorant and stupid” but not criminal.
“He did not see the world through the prism of race,” Theodocian said of Bryan.
They “never saw Ahmaud as a fellow human being”
In her rebuttal argument, U.S. Assistant Attorney Tara Lyons asked the jury to carefully review the video Bryan took of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery and the defendants’ statements to police in the aftermath of the shooting that were captured on police body-camera video.
“If you have any doubt, watch the way they react to him (Arbery) on the scene even after there’s no doubt in the world that the young man lying dead or dying in the street is unarmed and has nothing on him but his clothes and a well-worn pair of running shoes,” Lyons said.
Lyons said the defendants walked around Arbery’s body as if he were a “speed bump” or a “pothole.”
“Look for any sign of recognition by these defendants that in the middle of that pool of blood was an actual human being twitching and gasping as he bled out in the street,” Lyons said. “Go watch those videos. You won’t see one sign of sadness or regret or remorse from any of these defendants. And by now, you know why: because the three defendants — Travis, Greg and Roddie — never saw Ahmaud as a fellow human being.”
ABC News’ Janice McDonald contributed to this report.
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