Arbery trial nears close without confronting racism allegations
BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Outside the courthouse, a mostly-Black crowd spoke of racial justice as they gathered to support the family of Ahmaud Arbery, the Black man who was chased by three White men and killed here last year.
“The civil rights movement is starting again today,” Jamal Bryant, a Georgia pastor, said as hundreds assembled in rebuke of one defense lawyer’s objections to “Black pastors” in the courtroom.
But inside the Glynn County courthouse, the trial in Arbery’s killing drew to a close without directly confronting the allegations of racism that have permeated public outrage. The man who fatally shot Arbery, 25, wrapped up his testimony without being grilled on accusations of prejudice. And race has mostly come up out of earshot of the jury, as lawyers spar over whether Black civil rights leaders will sway the case by sitting in court.
Closing arguments are expected Monday morning after 10 days of witness testimony. The trial has centered on two questions: Did the defendants have legal grounds to chase Arbery in pickup trucks through their neighborhood? And can Travis McMichael claim self-defense when he fired his shotgun?
McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.
The prosecution is arguing the defendants cornered and threatened an unarmed man, and has implied that Arbery was racially profiled while jogging. The defense says that the accused were making a reasonable citizen’s arrest and that Travis McMichael shot because Arbery attacked him.
Throughout the trial, lawyers for the accused have sought to separate the court proceedings from the national conversation on Arbery’s killing, which exploded last year with a viral video. The judge this week denied their request for a mistrial, fueled in part by complaints that the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a civil rights icon, was influencing jurors from the gallery.
Court began Thursday with Bob Rubin, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, seeking to bar the prosecution from asking his client if he swore and said the n-word over Arbery’s body — as his co-defendant Bryan described to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in May of 2020. Rubin said the matter was not admissible in court given that Bryan would not testify.
Rubin also said Bryan’s claim was unreliable because the defendant made it months after the shooting, as he sought to become a witness for the prosecution. He also said that a 911 call line left open for several minutes after the shooting did not capture any slur.
Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, said that mentioning the n-word allegation would amount to compelling his client to take the stand.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski never broached the subject with Travis McMichael, apparently unable to get the judge’s blessing.
The prosecution also did not present texts and posts they highlighted at a bond hearing last year as indications of the defendants’ racial bias. They had threatened to bring in evidence of “racial animus” if Travis McMichael “opened the door” by testifying to his character. But he stuck to his concerns about neighborhood crime and his account of the Feb, 23, 2020 shooting.
Travis McMichael told the jury Wednesday that he wanted to stop Arbery for the police and raised his gun in the hopes of scaring Arbery off. Choking up at times, he said he fired when he believed the man was “overpowering” him in a struggle — striking him and grabbing his shotgun.
“I knew that he was on me,” he said. “I knew that I was losing this.”
He said he recognized Arbery from an incident earlier in February 2020, when he spotted a man “lurking” at an under-construction home. The man reached toward his waist as if for a weapon, he said, and then entered the building, leading Travis McMichael to make a police report.
Surveillance footage never showed Arbery taking anything from the unfinished home over several visits, but Travis said he heard that things went missing and suspected Arbery.
Pressing Travis McMichael Thursday on his attitudes toward “vigilantism,” Dunikoski highlighted a January 2019 exchange Travis McMichael had on Facebook with someone also concerned about theft.
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“It just worries me because my daddy is slap old crazy lol,” Dunikoski said the other person wrote. “He’s old as dirt and doesn’t care about jail.”
“That’s what this world needs more of,” Travis McMichael responded. “My old man is the same way.”
“Hell, I’m getting that way,” he added, according to Dunikoski.
Dunikoski also pressed the younger McMichael on his statements shortly after the shooting. He never told Glynn County police about Arbery “attacking” Bryan’s truck, she said, or that Arbery took off running when Travis McMichael said the police were coming — things the defendant had recounted for the jury. He also told police that he was not sure if Arbery grabbed his gun.
“Travis McMichael is lying,” Dunikoski said later.
Cellphone video shows Arbery turning toward Travis McMichael after passing his truck and then grappling with him, but the vehicle obscures some of their movements. An expert with the GBI’s crime lab told the jury that Arbery was shot at contact or near-contact range.
Travis McMichael said repeatedly that he was shaken and disoriented while speaking with authorities. “I was scared to death,” he said.
Later, Judge Timothy Walmsley rebuked the prosecution for asking a Satilla Shores resident if she believed that someone who steals deserves the death penalty.
“It’s inappropriate; it’s incendiary,” said Laura Hogue, who represents Greg McMichael.
Walmsley agreed and told the jury to disregard the question but denied Gough’s move for a mistrial.
Outside, a crowd swelled — largely in response to other comments from Gough, who said last week that “we don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here.” He also seemed to compare the Rev. Al Sharpton’s gallery appearance — as a guest of the Arbery family — with the hypothetical arrival of people “dressed like Colonel Sanders with white masks.”
Rally organizers said more than 250 Black clergy were expected Thursday for a “wall of prayer.” Among the speakers was Martin Luther King III, the son of Martin Luther King Jr. People traveled to the courthouse from as far away as Chicago. “BLACK PASTORS MATTER,” a sign declared.
Ben Crump, a lawyer who represents Arbery’s father, predicted the defense would ask the judge for a mistrial because of the demonstration. That’s why, he said, he wanted to keep his comments focused on God.
“We need preachers to come pray for them to keep their sanity in this insane situation, this inhumane situation, of having their son killed,” he said.
Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, said his Christian faith has helped him through tragedy, just as it helped Black people like his grandmothers survive slavery and discrimination in the era of Jim Crow.
Sharpton referenced killings of Black Americans going back to the civil rights era: Emmett Till, Trayvon Martin, George Floyd.
“Ahmaud may have looked like a suspect to you, but he was a child of God,” Sharpton said. “That is why we are in Brunswick today.”
MARGARET COKER AND HANNAH KNOWLES