Lawyers Clash Over Whether Pursuit of Arbery Was Justified

In closing arguments on Monday, prosecutors also raised a racial motive for why the three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery began chasing him.,

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BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Prosecutors and defense lawyers made their closing arguments in the case of the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery on Monday, raising the question, barely voiced during the trial, of whether race had been an issue.

The lead prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, told the 12 jurors who will decide the fate of three white men charged with murder that the men had launched an attack on Mr. Arbery “because he was a Black man running down the street.”

“What’s Mr. Arbery doing?” Ms. Dunikoski said. “He runs away from them. And runs away from them. And runs away from them.”

The defense countered that the men were carrying out a legal citizen’s arrest in an area that had been gripped by crime concerns in the months leading up to February 2020, when they chased Mr. Arbery through their neighborhood. Laura D. Hogue, a lawyer for one of the defendants, said that Mr. Arbery, who had been spotted several times on security camera footage at a partially constructed home in the neighborhood, had become “a recurring nighttime intruder — and that is frightening, and unsettling.”

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Linda Dunikoski, the lead prosecutor, told jurors a citizen’s arrest statute did not apply to the defendants because they had no knowledge that Mr. Arbery had committed a crime.Credit…Pool photo by Stephen B. Morton

Jurors are expected to begin their deliberations on Tuesday, after the two-week trial of Travis McMichael, 35, Gregory McMichael, 65, and William Bryan, 52, who are each charged with murder and other crimes in the death of Mr. Arbery outside of Brunswick, Ga. One essential question they must tackle is whether the men had any legal justification for their effort to detain Mr. Arbery.

The men, who all lived in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, attempted to stop Mr. Arbery after the elder Mr. McMichael saw him running in the direction opposite of the partially constructed house on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020. Moments earlier, another neighbor had seen Mr. Arbery in the house and had called the police. Mr. McMichael ran into his own house, grabbed a handgun and called to his son, who took a shotgun. They jumped into a pickup truck and gave chase. Soon Mr. Bryan was also going after Mr. Arbery in his own pickup truck.

The argument that the men were not justified in their pursuit, and are therefore guilty of other crimes, including aggravated assault and false imprisonment, was a pillar of Ms. Dunikoski’s closing statement on Monday. Indeed, it was an argument developed much more fully than the idea that the men had a racial motive, which Ms. Dunikoski mentioned only in passing.

That quite likely reflects the fact that prosecutors did not introduce at trial any evidence of racist language that the men are believed to have used. While prosecutors have declined to discuss their strategy in public, some legal experts believe they decided not to focus too much on racial issues because 11 members of the jury are white and one is Black.

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Members of the New Black Panther Party holding a photo of Mr. Arbery, who was killed in February 2020.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

Central to both the defense and prosecution cases is Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute, even though it was largely gutted this year by lawmakers who were motivated by widespread revulsion over the details of Mr. Arbery’s killing.

The law at the time stated that people could make an arrest if an offense was committed in their presence, or if they had “immediate knowledge” of the offense. If the offense was a felony and the suspect was trying to escape, a private person was also authorized to arrest the suspect “upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”

Ms. Dunikoski told the jury that the law did not apply to the men because they did not have any knowledge that Mr. Arbery had committed a crime that day — they merely assumed that he had. If he was guilty of any crime, she said, it was trespassing, which is not a felony but a misdemeanor, meaning they had no right to arrest him. Although video footage shows Mr. Arbery in the house on numerous occasions, including the day he was killed, he is never seen taking, or breaking, anything.

“Is he this giant burglar who just happened to never show up with a bag, or any means to steal anything, all right, or is he a looky-loo?” she said.

Jason Sheffield, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, the man who fatally shot Mr. Arbery, said his client had seen Mr. Arbery at the partially built house 12 days earlier, where, Mr. McMichael contends, Mr. Arbery moved his hands toward his waist as if he had a gun.

Mr. Sheffield suggested that Mr. Arbery’s presence in the house constituted burglary, a felony. Under Georgia law, he said, burglary does not require that anything actually be stolen. “You just have to enter with the intent to steal something,” he said.

All of this, Mr. Sheffield argued, gave Travis McMichael probable cause to believe that Mr. Arbery committed a burglary, therefore giving him a justification to try to detain him.

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Jason Sheffield, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, the man who killed Mr. Arbery with a shotgun, argued that Mr. McMichael had acted in self-defense.Credit…Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

Mr. Sheffield, in an apparent attempt to deflect the allegation of a racial motive, noted that Mr. McMichael had, on a separate occasion, called the police about a suspicious white person under a nearby bridge in his effort to keep the neighborhood safe.

And, as expected, Mr. Sheffield argued that Mr. McMichael had acted in self-defense when he shot Mr. Arbery at close range while the two men violently engaged at the end of the pursuit. Mr. Sheffield noted that Mr. Arbery used his fists during his struggle with Mr. McMichael, and he said there was “no question” that Mr. Arbery got his hands on Mr. McMichael’s gun. In a statement to the police shortly after the shooting, Mr. McMichael had said he was not sure if Mr. Arbery had grabbed the shotgun.

Ms. Dunikoski said that on the day he was killed, Mr. Arbery was on foot and unarmed, and posed no threat to the defendants.

Ms. Hogue, a lawyer for Gregory McMichael, had some of the harshest words for Mr. Arbery. She portrayed him as someone who probably had sinister intentions, describing him as skulking around “a home drenched in absolute darkness.”

Ms. Hogue said that Mr. Arbery might have shown promise as a teenager but that he had veered in the “wrong direction” and had no legitimate reason to be in Satilla Shores on the day he was shot to death. She particularly sought to challenge the prosecution’s depiction of her client’s motivations and of Mr. Arbery.

“Ahmaud Arbery was not an innocent victim,” Ms. Hogue said.

In his closing argument, Kevin Gough, the lawyer for Mr. Bryan, distanced his client from the McMichaels, pointing out that Mr. Bryan, who goes by Roddie, did not even know Travis McMichael and had only passing interactions with Gregory McMichael.

“Roddie Bryan’s presence is absolutely superfluous and irrelevant to the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery,” he said.

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Gregory McMichael, another defendant, returning to the courtroom. Credit…Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

Mr. Bryan did not know and could not have known that the other two men were armed or that Mr. Arbery would be shot, Mr. Gough said. “By the time he knew there was nothing he could do,” the lawyer said. And though the McMichaels had guns with them, Mr. Bryan “was armed only with his cellphone,” Mr. Gough said.

At various points in the trial, Mr. Gough had raised the possibility of severing his client’s case from that of the other two defendants. He made a motion for severance on Monday morning that was rejected by Judge Timothy R. Walmsley.

It was Mr. Bryan who recorded the video that showed the moment when Travis McMichael shot and killed Mr. Arbery. The public release of the video, in May 2020, stoked widespread outrage and significantly increased national interest in the case. The McMichaels were arrested shortly thereafter, followed by Mr. Bryan.

Mr. Gough asked the jury to take into account that Mr. Bryan had acted in good faith when he cooperated with the authorities, giving them access to, among other things, the phone he had used to record the footage.

He credited Mr. Bryan’s recording of that video to “serendipity, luck, coincidence or the hand of God.”

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