Ahmaud Arbery’s killers: Motivated by race or vigilant defenders?

In closing arguments at the US hate crime trial, the prosecution says defendants ‘thought the worst’ of Arbery because he was Black.

A woman holds a sign that reads, 'Justice for Ahmaud'
The killing of Arbery in 2020 fuelled racial justice protests across the United States [File: Marco Bello/Reuters]

The three white men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery chased down the young Black man and subsequently killed him because of “racial assumption”, a United States federal prosecutor has told jurors at the defendants’ hate-crimes trial.

Attorneys from the US Department of Justice stressed during closing arguments on Monday that the trio acted out of racial animosity when they pursued Arbery while he was jogging through their Georgia community.

Defence attorneys said the men believed they recognised Arbery from previous videos showing a trespasser on a nearby property, and they were trying to protect the neighbourhood.

Arbery, 25, who was out for an afternoon run, was seen as a criminal by the defendants for no other reason than his skin colour, said Christopher Perras, a special litigation counsel for the US Justice Department’s civil rights division.

“They were motivated by racial assumption, racial resentment and racial anger,” Perras said, referring to the defendants – Travis McMichael, 36; his father, former police officer Gregory McMichael, 66; and neighbour William “Roddie” Bryan, 52.

“They saw a Black man in their neighbourhood and they thought the worst of him.”

Pete Theodocion, Bryan’s attorney, argued the evidence of racism was merely “circumstantial”.

The trial coincides with the second anniversary of Arbery’s murder on February 23, 2020. Jurors on Monday afternoon were sent to begin their deliberations.

The trio were convicted of murder in state court last November, and early in 2022, a judge sentenced them to life in prison. The McMichaels were given life without parole, while Bryan could be eligible for parole after 30 years.

The ongoing federal trial seeks to determine whether the murder was a hate crime, with the three defendants charged with violating Arbery’s civil rights. They face sentences of up to life in prison if convicted.

During the trial, prosecutors presented evidence showing that the defendants shared racist text messages and social media posts 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*****.”  And for years, Bryan wrote messages mocking Martin Luther King Jr Day.

Defence lawyers have argued that the three men wanted to protect their neighbourhood and did not pursue Arbery because of his race. AJ Balbo, a defence attorney for Gregory McMichael, called Arbery’s killing “an American tragedy”.

To underscore that point, the defence said that in 2019, the older McMichael contacted the authorities about a white homeless man living under a nearby bridge after suspecting him of committing theft in the neighbourhood.

The lone defence witness, a neighbour, testified that she spotted a white man camped out under the same bridge sometime in 2019, but said she didn’t know if it was the same person the McMichaels had reported to police.

“There is no evidence of any acts of racial violence by Travis McMichael,” his defence lawyer said on Monday.

Attorney Amy Lee Copeland also said there was no evidence that McMichael “ever spoke to anyone about Mr Arbery’s death in racial terms”.

Photo of defendants
Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and William ‘Roddie’ Bryan Jr (left to right) were convicted of murder last year [File: Glynn County Detention Center via AP]

Local prosecutors had initially declined to charge the three men after they fatally shot Arbery in 2020. At the time, Georgia had a law enabling citizens’ arrests, and the defendants argued that they acted in self-defence. The law was repealed after the murder.

Months later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the probe and arrested the three men – after a video of the incident, captured by Bryan, became public.

The killing of Arbery sparked outrage across the US, fuelling the racial justice protests that rocked the country after the murder of George Floyd by a police officer in Minnesota in May 2020.

Nirej Sekhon, a professor of criminal law at Georgia State University who has been following the case, said federal prosecutors in the hate-crime trial tried to show the defendants as “inveterate racists”.

“They need to show that racism saturated every dimension of their lives and informed their decision to chase Mr Arbery,” Sekhon told the Reuters news agency in a telephone interview. “I believe that they’ve met that bar, that they can tether their [the defendants’] mindset to their actions.”

The prosecution had reached a plea deal with Travis McMichael over the hate-crime charges, which would have averted trial and seen the defendant and his father spend the first 30 years of their life sentences in federal prison.

A US judge rejected the agreement late last month, however, citing the Arbery family’s objection to its terms. The defendants withdrew their guilty pleas after the judge’s decision.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies