“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 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.
“This (Bryant’s pursuit) would have happened regardless of (Arbery’s) race,” Theodocion said.
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.
Arguing the McMichaels acted out of racial resentment, Perras pointed to testimony about the way they talked about African Americans.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
CNN’s Pamela Kirkland, Alta Spells, Kevin Conlon, Nick Valencia, Christina Maxouris and Theresa Waldrop contributed to this report.