Was Arbery killing a hate crime? Jury hears dueling views
Brunswick, Ga. – Three white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery on a residential street acted out of “pent-up racial anger” and should be convicted of hate crimes, a federal prosecutor told a jury Monday. Defense attorneys argued that the Black man was fatally shot in self-defense and had acted suspiciously during prior trips to the neighborhood.
The jury of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person began deliberating Monday afternoon after hearing dueling reasons for the killing in U.S. District Court. Verdicts on hate crime charges rest not on whether the pursuit and shooting were justified, but whether they were motivated by racism. The trial began a week ago.
Prosecutor Christopher Perras argued that Travis McMichael “was just looking for a reason” to hurt a Black person when the 25-year-old Arbery jogged past his home on a Sunday afternoon. Perras cited a slew of racist comments and videos the defendant had posted online.
And when McMichael, his father and a neighbor began chasing Arbery, they had no evidence he had done anything wrong, but they assumed he had because he was Black, Perras said.
When McMichael’s father, Greg McMichael, saw Arbery jogging down the street, “he didn’t grab his phone and call police,” Perras said. “He called his son and grabbed his gun.”
“There’s a big difference between being vigilant and being a vigilante,” said Perras, later adding: “It’s important for you to understand the full depth of the defendants’ racial hatred.”
Defense attorneys insisted past racist statements by their clients offered no proof that they targeted Arbery because of his race. They urged the jury to set aside emotions when deciding the case.
“It’s natural for you to want retribution or revenge,” said Pete Theodocion, Bryan’s attorney. “But we have to elevate ourselves … even if it’s the tough thing.”
It’s been nearly two years since Arbery fell dead from two shotgun blasts on Feb. 23, 2020, after a five-minute chase through the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside the port city of Brunswick. The slaying was captured in a graphic cellphone video that sparked outrage far beyond Georgia.
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.
Travis McMichael’s attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, told the jury prosecutors presented no evidence that he “ever spoke to anyone about Mr. Arbery’s death in racial terms” or committed prior acts of racial violence.
Copeland noted the McMichaels pursued Arbery because they recognized him from videos recorded by security cameras inside a neighboring home under construction, which Arbery had entered at night four times in the months before the shooting. She said the behavior was suspicious, though there was no evidence Arbery had stolen anything.
As for the shooting, Copeland said it was “based on self-defense,” with Travis McMichael opening fire after Arbery tried to grab his shotgun.
“Mr. Arbery tried to wrestle the gun out of Travis McMichael’s hand,” Copeland said. “You can see the struggle on the recording.”
The McMichaels and Bryan were all convicted of murder last fall in a Georgia state court. The U.S. Justice Department charged them separately in federal court with hate crimes, alleging that all three men violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he’s Black. They are also charged with attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels face counts of using guns in the commission of a crime.
Regardless of the outcome of the hate crimes case, the McMichaels have been sentenced to life in prison without parole for their murder convictions. Bryan also received a life sentence, with parole possible only after he’s served at least 30 years.
Legal experts have said that it’s tougher to prove hate crimes than it is the crime of murder. The McMichaels and Bryan have all pleaded not guilty to the hate crimes.
Defense attorneys insisted the trio pursued Arbery based on an earnest, though erroneous, suspicion that he had committed crimes in their neighborhood. Greg McMichael told police he recognized Arbery from security camera videos from the neighboring construction site as he came running out of the same unfinished house the day of the shooting.
Greg McMichael’s attorney, A.J. Balbo, said Monday that his client had previously confronted a white person he suspected of possibly committing crimes in the area. Balbo said his client didn’t chase Arbery because he was a Black man, but because he was “THE man” from the security videos.
Those videos showed Arbery taking nothing from the construction site. An officer told the McMichaels there was no evidence of him stealing. Bryan, who knew nothing of the security footage, told investigators he assumed Arbery had done something wrong when he ran past Bryan’s house with the McMichaels in pursuit.
Theodocion argued it was “entirely reasonable” for his client to assume that a truck he recognized as belonging to someone in the neighborhood was chasing Arbery because he had done something wrong. He said the chase and Bryan’s participation in it “would have happened regardless of race, based on the circumstances.”
FBI agents uncovered roughly two dozen racist text messages and social media posts from the McMichaels and Bryan in the years and months preceding the shooting.
In 2018, Travis McMichael commented on a Facebook video of a Black man playing a prank on a white person: “I’d kill that f––ing n––r.” Greg McMichael had posted a Facebook meme saying white Irish “slaves” were treated worse than any race in U.S. history. And for several years on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Bryan wrote messages in which he mocked the holiday honoring the civil rights leader.
Some witnesses testified they heard the McMichaels’ racist statements firsthand. A woman who served under Travis McMichael in the U.S. Coast Guard a decade ago said he made crude sexual jokes after learning she had dated a Black man and called her “n––r lover.” Another woman testified Greg McMichael had ranted angrily in 2015 when she remarked on the death of civil rights activist Julian Bond, saying, “All those Blacks are nothing but trouble.”