“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 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.
Defense attorneys rejected arguments that their clients acted because of race.
“This (Bryan’s pursuit) would have happened regardless of (Arbery’s) race,” the attorney said.
Amy Copeland, a defense attorney for Travis McMichael, said in her closing statement there is no evidence her client used a racial slur on the day Arbery was murdered, no evidence he was part of a hate group, no evidence of racial violence committed by McMichael and no evidence that he talked about Arbery’s death in racial terms.
The defense attorney for Greg McMichael told the jury that his client had tenants who were people of color.
“Those are his private facilities, attorney A.J. Balbo said. “Gregory McMichael invited people of color, African Americans to make use of his private facilities.”
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, broke down in the courtroom Monday, when Balbo detailed the moments leading up to the fatal attack.
“He described Ahmaud as turning toward Travis and attacking Travis, which we all know now that wasn’t true,” she told reporters outside the courthouse. “When Ahmaud turned to Travis, Travis already had that shotgun pulled toward him.”
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 nonemergency 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 had 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.
Travis McMichael’s attorney argued that the jury can’t use his racist comments “to judge his character. The case isn’t to punish belief even if you think they’re wrong. But you can use these messages … to determine if Mr. McMichael acted with the motive and intent required of this particular element,” Copeland 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.
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.
Perras on Monday argued the defendants, after Arbery’s killing, falsely told police Arbery had been caught breaking into houses. That was part of a pattern, Perras said, showing the defendants knew what they had done wrong and were trying to get away with it.
What a former US attorney says the prosecution has to show
Though the men’s texts and social media posts contain “very unsavory and just disgusting commentary,” he said, that alone will not suffice.
“They’ve got to go in and say, ‘We have this evidence of racial bias and race-related motivation, and that is one of the reasons that (Arbery) was killed,'” the former federal prosecutor said. “The question is: Does the fact that somebody may be a racist — can you say that is what led to this killing? And I think that’s a tougher burden on the government.”
At the same time, the evidence of past racial slurs provides context for the alleged crimes, Moore said. That may be ample to secure a conviction, he said, because “race doesn’t have to be the sole motivator in a hate crimes case.”
Arbery’s mother pointed out that the second anniversary of his death will be Wednesday.
“Hopefully we’ll have a good verdict by the 23rd,” Cooper-Jones said.
CNN’s Pamela Kirkland, Alta Spells, Kevin Conlon, Nick Valencia, Christina Maxouris and Theresa Waldrop contributed to this report.