After Calling One Witness, Defense Rests in Arbery Hate Crimes Trial
BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Defense lawyers in the hate crimes trial of the three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery rested their case on Friday after calling just a single witness.
None of the defendants — Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan — took the stand in their own defense.
The men were convicted in state court last year of chasing Mr. Arbery through their South Georgia neighborhood and murdering him. All three were sentenced to life in prison. In the federal trial, they stand accused of pursuing and killing Mr. Arbery specifically because he was Black.
On Friday, only the lawyer for Gregory McMichael presented evidence to the jury, in an attempt to buttress the defense’s central argument that the men chased Mr. Arbery because they suspected him of committing burglaries in the area, not because of his race.
The single defense witness, a woman who lived in the Satilla Shores neighborhood where the defendants lived and where Mr. Arbery died, testified that on one occasion in 2019 she saw a white man who appeared suspicious under a bridge near the entrance to the neighborhood. A.J. Balbo, Mr. McMichael’s lawyer, played a recording of a call Mr. McMichael made to authorities that summer after he, too, saw a white man under the bridge whom he thought was suspicious and perhaps responsible for burglaries. The defendants have argued in both trials that they were on alert because of a rash of break-ins.
An advocate for Mr. Arbery’s family expressed skepticism about that line of argument.
“The defense tried to use this witness to show that their clients aren’t racist, that they called the police on a white man and were concerned about crime, but just because you called the police on a white person doesn’t mean you’re not racist,” said Lynn Whitfield, a senior attorney with the Transformative Justice Coalition who has been sitting with Mr. Arbery’s family during the court proceedings. “They didn’t chase the white man through the neighborhood with guns and kill him.”
The jury is tasked with determining whether the men deprived Mr. Arbery of his right to use a public street because he was Black, not whether they committed murder. The men are also charged with attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels are charged with one count each of using a weapon during a violent crime. If convicted, they face up to life in prison. Guilty verdicts would have practical ramifications if the men’s state convictions were overturned on appeal.
The defense witness on Friday came after prosecutors called 20 witnesses and introduced dozens of pieces of evidence over three and a half days, including text, WhatsApp and Facebook messages and comments containing racist language that the men posted and sent to others.
Among the prosecution’s witnesses was Kristie Ronquille, who testified on Friday morning.
Ms. Ronquille said that in 2011, when she was in the Coast Guard in Pascagoula, Miss., Travis McMichael, then her supervisor, made disparaging comments about Black people after learning that she had previously dated a Black man. Crying on the stand, Ms. Ronquille said Mr. McMichael called her an “N-word lover” on more than one occasion after that.
Asked by Travis McMichael’s lawyer, Amy Lee Copeland, why she had not reported him, Ms. Ronquille said that she was new to the Coast Guard.
“This is my supervisor — it’d be like telling on your boss,” she said. “Who do you tell on your boss to?”
On Friday, the prosecution also called Kim Ballesteros, a neighbor of the McMichaels, who said she remembered standing at the end of a driveway, telling Gregory McMichael that she had a new rental property. Mr. McMichael told her about his own tenant, a Black woman who had rented a home from him. He said he had cut off the woman’s air-conditioning in the summer to goad her into paying her rent.
Understand the Killing of Ahmaud Arbery
The shooting. On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed after being chased by three white men while jogging near his home on the outskirts of Brunswick, Ga. The slaying of Mr. Arbery was captured in a graphic video that was widely viewed by the public.
The victim. Mr. Arbery was a former high school football standout and an avid jogger. At the time of his death, he was living with his mother outside the small coastal city in Southern Georgia.
The fallout. The release of the video of the shooting sparked nationwide protests and prompted Georgia lawmakers to make significant changes to the state’s criminal law, including passage of the state’s first hate crimes statute.
The suspects. Three white men — Gregory McMichael, 67, his 35-year-old son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — stood accused of murdering Mr. Arbery. They told authorities they suspected Mr. Arbery of committing a series of break-ins.
The verdict. On Nov. 24, 2021, a jury found the three defendants guilty of murder and other charges. The men were sentenced to life in prison, with only one eligible for parole.
The federal hate crimes trial. Jury selection has begun in the federal hate crimes trial of the three men after a judge rejected a plea deal for two defendants following strenuous opposition from Mr. Arbery’s family. At the heart of the trial is whether the defendants were motivated by racism.
“You should have seen how fast her big fat Black ass came with the rent check,” Ms. Ballesteros recalled Mr. McMichael saying. Ms. Ballesteros said Mr. McMichael called the woman a “walrus” because she was “big and Black.”
“I was surprised,” Ms. Ballesteros said. “It was racist and uncomfortable, and I was frankly disappointed.”
Mr. Balbo, Gregory McMichael’s lawyer, noted that Ms. Ballesteros continued to speak with Mr. McMichael after the incident and that his client rented to African Americans.
Another witness, Carole Sears, said she recalled hearing Gregory McMichael “rant” about Black people after finding out that Julian Bond, the civil rights leader, had died. At the time, Mr. McMichael was an investigator for the local district attorney’s office and she was riding in his car because of her involvement in a legal matter in Brunswick, Ga. Ms. Sears was upset about Mr. Bond’s death, while Mr. McMichael was pleased, she said. “I wish that guy had been in the ground years ago,” Ms. Sears recalled Mr. McMichael saying. “All those Blacks are nothing but trouble and I wish they’d all die.”
Ms. Sears said she did not speak for the remainder of the ride because she was afraid.
In their opening statements this week, defense lawyers criticized the racist language their clients used, but they also insisted that use of such language is not evidence that the men killed Mr. Arbery because he was Black.
The men chased Mr. Arbery “not because he was a Black man, but because he was the man,” Mr. Balbo said in his opening statements.
The jury will hear closing arguments from the government and the defendants on Monday.