BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Jurors in the trial of the three men charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery began deliberating just before noon Tuesdayafter attorneys made their closing arguments.
How the nearly all-white panel decides on a verdict could ultimately hinge on how they view Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Arbery and was the only defendant to testify.
“If the jury thinks that (Travis) McMichael was justified in using deadly force, then I don’t think they’ll convict his father either, or for that matter the other defendant,” Timothy Floyd, a law professor at Mercer University in Macon, Georgia, told USA TODAY. Floyd has been following the trial.
Twelve jurors will decide if McMichael, his father, Gregory, and William “Roddie” Bryan are guilty of murder and other crimes in the death of the 25-year-old Black man on Feb. 23, 2020.
The McMichaels’ attorneys say the father and son were trying to detain Arbery for police because they believed he was responsible for burglarizing a neighbor’s home and that Travis shot him in self-defense during a struggle over his shotgun. Bryan’s attorney contends he was merely a witness to the homicide who captured the shooting on video.
The prosecution, meanwhile, argued the men saw a Black man running in their neighborhood and pursued him with weapons without having “immediate knowledge” that he had committed a crime – a requirement for making a citizen’s arrest. If the arrest wasn’t legitimate, prosecutors said they can’t claim self-defense.
Although Arbery’s death fueled national racial justice demonstrationslast year, race was not a key part of prosecution or defense arguments. But race has been central in the trial: The judge acknowledged “intentional discrimination” in the jury selection process, and more than 100 Black pastors converged on the courthouse after Bryan’s attorney argued the presence of civil rights figures in the courtroom was intimidating to the jury.
In her final plea Tuesday morning, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told jurors the defendants could not claim self-defense because they initiated the confrontation.
“Who started this? It wasn’t Ahmaud Arbery,” she said.
Here are key moments from the trial:
Prosecution: Defense ‘completely made up’ citizen’s arrest claim for trial
The McMichaels and Bryan have been charged with malice murder and felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and one count of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Both murder charges could result in a life sentence and defendants would be sentenced on the most serious charge.
Over eight days, the prosecution showed surveillance video, played 911 calls and called 23 witnesses, including neighbors and multiple law enforcement officers, to support their argument that the men had no evidence Arbery had committed a crime and no intention of arresting Arbery when they hopped in trucks to pursue him.
The argument that the McMichaels were trying to place Arbery under citizen’s arrest was “completely made up for trial,” given that they never told police that was their intention, Dunikoski said.
“They can’t claim self defense under the law because they were the initial, unjustified aggressors,” she said Monday.
Ron Carlson, a law professor at the University of Georgia who has been following the trial, said Dunikoski did an effective job illustrating that point with “damaging” statements defendants gave to the police.
Several investigators testified that Gregory McMichael said he didn’t know if Arbery was armed, where he was running from or if he had taken anything from a neighbor’s construction site. Witnesses, including that neighbor, told the court they had no knowledge Arbery ever took anything from the house under construction where he was seen on surveillance video.
Meanwhile, Kevin Gough, Bryan’s attorney, argued Monday that his client was not “trapping” or falsely imprisoning Arbery, there was no evidence to show he attempted to assault Arbery with his truck, and Bryan may even have tried to abandon the chase at some point.
But investigators said Bryan told police he blocked, cornered and cut off Arbery during the chase, supporting the state’s false imprisonment charge. Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents testified that a palm print from Arbery and white cotton fibers consistent with Arbery’s T-shirt were found on Bryan’s truck, supporting the state’s aggravated assault with motor vehicle charge.
“Some of the condemnation of the defense team came from the defendants’ own mouths,” Carlson said.
‘I’m not OK. I just killed somebody’:Jury in Ahmaud Arbery killing hears first words after shooting
Travis McMichael made ‘very risky’ decision to testify about self-defense
Defense attorneys spent two days questioning seven witnesses, including defendant Travis McMichael who repeatedly emphasized that the “totality of circumstances” and his law enforcement training in the U.S. Coast Guard gave him probable cause to suspect Arbery had committed a crime, pursue him and shoot him in self-defense.
“The whole case for the defense rests on the shoulders of Travis,” said Carlson. “Whether the jury believes him or not will be a real key to deciding this case.”
McMichael’s decision to testify was “very risky” because the jury may not find him to be believable, Floyd told USA TODAY.
“Usually if a defendant does testify, it’s because the defendant or the defendant’s lawyers have decided that if the defendant didn’t testify, there’s a really good chance of a conviction,” he said.
On the day of the shooting, McMichael said his father saw Arbery running and identified him as “the same guy” Travis had seen “lurking” outside the neighbor’s home about two weeks earlier. McMichael said he grabbed his gun and pursued Arbery so that he could talk to him and tell police his location.
Georgia at the time permitted private citizens to detain someone if a felony was committed in their presence or if they had “immediate knowledge” of a crime. The governor signed a repeal of the law after Arbery’s death.
After facing several hours of questioning from his attorney, McMichael broke down on the stand while describing the moment he shot Arbery. McMichael said Arbery struck him and he was afraid Arbery would shoot him or his father.
“It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he had gotten the shotgun from me, it was a life-or-death situation,” McMichael said. “So I shot.”
Georgia law allows the use of deadly force if a person reasonably believes they or someone else are about to be killed or seriously injured – unless the person using deadly force is the initial aggressor.
“If you’re claiming self-defense, you have to convince the jury that there was no alternative to deadly force,” Floyd said. “A lot of people think the jury is not really going to buy that.”
Video was ‘most important witness’
Jurors repeatedly saw the cellphone video and still frames of the shooting as attorneys laid out their arguments about what happened in the crucial moments that are obscured from view.
Bryan’s cellphone video was “the most important witness in the case,” Carlson said.
Ahmaud Arbery video:Legal experts break down how key frames may be used in murder trial
“The presence of the video will solve a lot of the concerns and doubts the jurors have one way or the other,” Carlson said, adding that he doesn’t expect lengthy deliberations.
In the short clip taken by Bryan, a white pickup truck blocks the view of the beginning of the struggle between Arbery and Travis McMichael. The men move off screen and a gunshot is heard. Arbery and Travis McMichael are then seen with their hands on a weapon that is angled upward, toward Arbery.
The struggle again goes out of view and Gregory McMichael is seen in the back of the truck. A second shot is heard, and the camera shifts back to the fight where Arbery is throwing punches. A third gunshot is heard, and Arbery falls to the ground.
Racial dynamics were at play inside and outside the Georgia courtroom
Race was a focal point in the case from the beginning, with several public figures calling the killing a “lynching” and potential jurors being asked about Black Lives Matter and the Confederate flag.
The demographic makeup of the jury sparked backlash and Judge Timothy Walmsley acknowledged “intentional discrimination” in the painstakingly slow jury selection process. The final panel consists of 12 jurors and three alternates: 11 white women, three white men and one Black man.
Although prosecutors mentioned race occasionally, those jurors did not hear testimony that focused on the racial issues in the case. Prosecutors did not ask about Travis McMichael allegedly using a racial slur while standing over Arbery’s body, a claim denied by his attorneys.
Floyd said Dunikoski may have thought it was “a bit risky” to ask about Travis McMichael allegedly using a racial slur while standing over Arbery’s body, a claim denied by his attorneys. Prosecutors did not need to prove the defendants were motivated by racial animus since they are not facing state hate crime charges.
“If you think there’s a decent chance the trial judge could declare a mistrial or the court of appeals might reverse, or if you think you’re going to get a conviction anyway, it may be safer not to ask about it,” he said.