Hate Crimes Case in Arbery Murder Goes to Jury

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — A federal prosecutor in the hate crimes trial for the three white men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery told the jury in closing arguments on Monday that the defendants had targeted Mr. Arbery because of his race and did not help him after he was shot because they considered him to be “subhuman.”

Defense attorneys argued that their clients had chased Mr. Arbery because they thought he may have committed a crime.

And despite copious evidence that the men harbored bigoted beliefs — including referring to Black people as animals— and that two of them repeatedly used racist slurs, defense lawyers said that there was not enough evidence to prove that racism was the reason they had pursued Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, through their neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon in February 2020.

On Monday afternoon, a jury began deliberating on whether the five-minute pursuit, which ended in the fatal shooting of Mr. Arbery, amounted to a crime of interfering with his right to use public streets because of his “race and color,” as an indictment put it.

The three defendants — Gregory McMichael, 66; his son, Travis McMichael, 36; and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — have already been found guilty of murder in state court and sentenced to life in prison, with only Mr. Bryan given the possibility of parole. They could face additional sentences of up to life in prison in the federal case, which includes a charge of attempted kidnapping and weapons charges for the McMichaels.

Greg McMichael; his son, Travis McMichael; and a neighbor, William Bryan, were sentenced to life in prison following the murder trial in state court. Credit…Pool photo by Sean Rayford

The weeklong federal trial revealed, often in disturbing detail, the dehumanizing ways that the men viewed African Americans, with evidence that Travis McMichael and Mr. Bryan used racist slurs in electronic communications, and a witness who said that Gregory McMichael once stated, “All those Blacks are nothing but trouble. I wish they would all die.”

But none of the evidence presented showed that these slurs and insults were aimed specifically at Mr. Arbery. The trial will now turn on whether the jury feels that the prosecution created a sufficient link between the defendants’ previous racist statements and the decisions they made on the day of the killing.

“It’s critical that there be a nexus shown between the racial beliefs of these men and the actions they took that day,” said Ronald L. Carlson, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Georgia who followed the case closely. “That is to say, that they were actuated in significant part — not exclusively perhaps, but in significant part — by racial animus.”

The trial is a high-profile test for the Justice Department. Last year, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland vowed to make the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes a “top priority” at a time when the number of reported hate crimes are at their highest point in more than a decade.

Not-guilty verdicts would almost certainly raise questions about the wisdom of the government’s decision to bring the case against the men and underscore the limitations of hate crime prosecutions more generally. It would also leave a bitter taste in the mouths of Mr. Arbery’s family, as well as the many people around the nation repulsed by the pursuit and killing of an unarmed man that the Rev. Al Sharpton has called “a lynching in the 21st century.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton speaking alongside Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, during the state murder trial.Credit…Nicole Craine for The New York Times

One of the lawyers delivering the government’s closing argument was Christopher J. Perras of the Justice Department’s civil rights division. He reminded jurors that even though the federal statute the men are charged under is commonly called a hate crimes law, it was not necessary for the government to show that the men had “hate in their hearts” on the day of the killing. Rather, he said, the government had to show only that “race was one of the reasons it happened.”

Mr. Perras argued that what motivated the men that day was not, as they claimed, a concern about neighborhood crime. “It was about race,” he said. “Racial assumptions, racial resentment and racial anger.”

The prosecutor said the men’s actions amounted not to vigilance, but to vigilantism. “When Greg McMichael saw Ahmaud Arbery jogging by his house, and Greg suspected that Ahmaud was up to no good, he didn’t call police. He grabbed his son, and his gun, and chased after him.”

When that chase passed by Mr. Bryan’s house, he said, Mr. Bryan gave chase as well, automatically assuming that Mr. Arbery must have been up to no good because he was being chased by two white men, rather than suspecting the white men might be in the wrong.

Over the course of their case, prosecutors emphasized that some of the racist statements made by the men occurred just days or months before they went after Mr. Arbery. On Monday, Mr. Perras said that the McMichaels “hated Black people” and “projected their racial hatred onto Ahmaud.”

As proof of that “projection,” Mr. Perras noted that Travis McMichael had told a friend that he suspected Mr. Arbery of stealing a gun from his truck, even though there is no evidence that Mr. Arbery had done so.

At around the same time the gun went missing, Mr. Perras noted, the friend sent a video to Mr. McMichael of a Black man sticking a firecracker up his nose. Mr. McMichael, using a racist slur, said it would have been “cooler” if the man had blown his head off.

The Killing of Ahmaud Arbery

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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, his son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan — 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 hate crimes trial. The federal hate crimes trial of the three men began on Feb. 14, 2022, after a judge rejected a plea deal for the McMichaels following strenuous opposition from Mr. Arbery’s family. At the heart of the trial is whether the men were motivated by racism.

Mr. Perras also paired what he called the “disproportionate reaction” the three men had to seeing a Black man running in their neighborhood with the “disproportionate reaction” once Travis McMichael shot Mr. Arbery three times at close range with his 12-gauge shotgun.

Video introduced at trial showed Mr. Arbery lying on the pavement, with his body moving slightly as he struggled to breathe his last breaths. The men did nothing to help him. Mr. Perras said they did not see a fellow human being in the street but “a subhuman savage.” He characterized Gregory McMichael’s conversation with responding police officers as something that sounded like a man describing a “hunting trip.”

“I ask you to hold these defendants accountable,” he said. “Hold them accountable not only for what they did, but for why they did it.”

In her closing statement, the lawyer for Travis McMichael acknowledged that the evidence presented in court of his racism was disturbing. But the lawyer, Amy Lee Copeland, noted that racist talk was not illegal, and she said that the government had not done enough to show that the pursuit and killing was motivated by race. She said that Mr. McMichael believed Mr. Arbery was going to harm him, and that Mr. McMichael was defending himself when he fired the shots.

J. Pete Theodocion, a lawyer for Mr. Bryan, said that his client would have helped to pursue any person who was being chased down his street, regardless of their race. “His instincts told him people do not get chased like that, people do not get chased like that unless they’ve done something wrong,” he said.

A.J. Balbo, a lawyer for Greg McMichael, noted that the police had on previous occasions shown Mr. McMichael surveillance videos of Mr. Arbery inside of a house under construction near the McMichaels’ home. That meant Mr. McMichael recognized Mr. Arbery on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020, when Mr. Arbery ran past him.

“When he’s in his driveway and he looks up, he may not have known Mr. Arbery’s name, but he knew who he was,” Mr. Balbo said of Mr. McMichael.

Mr. Balbo offered the jury a hypothetical: What if a Black man who did not look like Mr. Arbery had run down the street that day — a 350-pound man, say, with a tall mohawk? Mr. Balbo contended that Mr. McMichael would not have chased after such a man.

Mr. Balbo also noted that there was no evidence presented at trial that his client had used racial slurs, although he had made racially provocative statements. At trial, investigators noted that they were unable to fully search Mr. McMichael’s encrypted cellphone for digital evidence of past behavior.

Notably, jurors in the case were not made aware that Mr. Bryan had told investigators that Travis McMichael had used a racist slur in the moments after he shot Mr. Arbery. That crucial detail, refuted by Mr. McMichael’s lawyers, was likely not introduced because Mr. Bryan exercised his Fifth Amendment right not to take the witness stand.

That, in turn, would have deprived Mr. McMichael of his Sixth Amendment right to confront his accuser.

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