Ahmaud Arbery murder: ‘Pent-up racial anger’ led to killers’ pursuit of Arbery, prosecutor says in closing arguments of hate crimes trial

“This wasn’t about trespassing. This wasn’t about neighborhood crimes, either. … It was about race — racial assumptions, racial resentment, and racial anger,” Justice Department civil rights division counsel Christopher J. Perras told a jury in court Monday morning in Brunswick, Georgia.

Defendants Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan knew only this for certain when they saw Arbery running in their neighborhood in February 2020 outside Brunswick — that Arbery “was a Black man running down a public street,” Perras said.

“(The McMichaels didn’t pursue) because they were concerned about trespassing, unless something extra was motivating them. … (It was) pent-up racial anger,” Perras said.

The McMichaels and Bryan were convicted in a state court in November of felony murder and other charges for the killing of Arbery, a Black man, after they chased him in a neighborhood outside Brunswick.

The jury in the federal trial 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’ attorneys were giving their closing arguments from late Monday morning into the afternoon. Bryan’s attorney, Pete Theodocion, rejected arguments that Bryan acted because of race.

Bryan, who joined the pursuit in his own truck after seeing the McMichaels follow a running Arbery in their pickup, and who recorded video of the shooting, would have done so regardless of skin color, Theodocion said.

“This (Bryant’s pursuit) would have happened regardless of (Arbery’s) race,” Theodocion said.

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. 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 both trials contended the McMichaels, suspecting Arbery of trespassing multiple times at an under-construction home, pursued him through neighborhood streets to stop him for police. Travis McMichael argued he shot Arbery in self-defense as they wrestled over McMichael’s shotgun.
Prosecutors at both trials conceded Arbery was at the construction site several times including the day of the shooting, but always without breaking in or taking anything, and never doing anything that would allow the men to pursue or stop him. They argued 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 knowledge he’d committed a crime.
Monday’s closing arguments came after four days of testimony from 21 witnesses — only one of which was for the defense.

Prosecutor raises evidence of racial slurs and animus

Perras contrasted the defendants’ actions to others in the neighborhood, including a neighbor who, instead of chasing Arbery, simply called a non-emergency police line after seeing him at the construction site.

That was vigilance, whereas the defendants were vigilantes, Perras said.

Travis McMichael's former boss says he fired McMichael for lying about Ahmaud Arbery's murder

Arguing the McMichaels acted out of racial resentment, Perras pointed to testimony about the way they talked about African Americans.

Perras brought up a witness who testified that Gregory McMichael, after she brought up the death of a civil rights leader, said in 2015, “All these Blacks are nothing but trouble; I wish they’d all die,” before going on a longer rant about Black people.
The prosecutor also pointed to Travis McMichael’s use of social media. Testimony had included that Travis McMichael commented under a Facebook video appearing to show a group of primarily Black teenagers beating a White teen, referring to them as “monkeys,” and writing: “I say shoot them all.”

Perras said evidence showed Travis McMichael projected hatred of Black people onto Arbery. When Travis McMichael’s gun was stolen from the neighborhood well before the fatal February 2020 encounter, evidence showed he blamed that on the Black person who’d been reported at the construction site.

There was no evidence any such person had taken McMichael’s gun, and he ignored evidence that a White person had allegedly stolen a gun from a vehicle down the street weeks beforehand, Perras said.

Perras also pointed to evidence that Bryan posted racial slurs, and disapproved of his daughter’s relationship with a Black man. Perras argued Bryan’s pursuit of Arbery — after seeing Arbery running from the McMichaels’ truck — was based on race, citing testimony that Bryan didn’t know precisely what was happening or asked what the pursuit was about.

“He didn’t ask Ahmaud, ‘Are you OK.’ … (He assumed) the Black man was in the wrong and the White guys were in the right. … That’s how hard-wired his racial assumptions were,” Perras said.

Theodocion, Bryan’s attorney, countered Monday that Arbery never asked for help. What Bryan saw was two people — in a truck he recognized from the neighborhood — asking Arbery to stop, and Arbery wasn’t stopping.

“It was entirely reasonable” to assume the person being chased did something wrong, Theodocion said. Bryan “absolutely” had “enough evidence” to follow in his own vehicle at a slow speed and record video, the lawyer said.

Addressing Bryan’s messages, he said that while the slurs were “nothing to be proud of” and his disapproval of his daughter’s relationship may be unfortunate and ignorant, there’s nothing showing he was obsessed with race or that it was a factor in the pursuit.

“The point in this trial is not whether he has opinions we don’t approve of. … He was not shown through this evidence to have a hatred of African Americans (or) a want of violence,” toward them, Theodocion said.

Defense attorneys have acknowledged their clients used racist language, but have denied Arbery’s race motivated his killing or their actions toward him.

The jury 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.

Previous testimony

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.
Federal judge rejects plea deal on hate crime charges in Ahmaud Arbery's killing over sentencing concerns

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 November 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.

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.

CNN’s Pamela Kirkland, Alta Spells, Kevin Conlon, Nick Valencia, Christina Maxouris and Theresa Waldrop contributed to this report.

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