A nearly all-white jury began deliberating Tuesday in the case of three white men accused of hunting down and murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man whose death last year was captured on video and sparked racial justice protests across the nation.
Gregory McMichael, 65, his son, Travis McMichael, 35, and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., 52, are accused of felony and malice murder in the shooting death, which they say occurred in self-defense as they were trying to carry out a citizen’s arrest.
“You can’t claim self-defense if you are the unjustified aggressor,” Linda Dunikoski, the lead prosecutor, said Tuesday as she wrapped up the state’s case. “Who started this? It wasn’t Ahmaud Arbery.”
The killing has already spurred Georgia to repeal its antiquated citizen’s arrest law and pass a new hate crimes law.
No one disputes that the three men chased Arbery in their pickup trucks as he ran through their subdivision just outside this blue-collar Georgia port city. Nor do they disagree that Travis McMichael ultimately shot Arbery.
The case centers on are questions about why the three men pursued Arbery, whether they had a legal right to carry out a citizen’s arrest and whether Travis McMichael acted in self-defense in shooting when Arbery, in the final moments of his life, suddenly ran toward him and wrestled with his gun.
Under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law — an 1863-era statute that was repealed six months ago, but still applies in the trial because it was in effect at the time of the shooting — it was legal for an ordinary person to detain somebody suspected of committing a felony.
At issue is the timing of such an arrest, whether it must be carried out immediately after the suspected felony or whether some time can pass.
Dunikoski argued the former, telling jurors that the defendants’ actions on February 23, 2020, were not a lawful citizen’s arrest, because they were “not present when any crime was committed” and did not have “immediate knowledge” that Arbery had committed a felony that day.
The McMichaels and Bryan acted on assumptions and rumors and had no justification for hunting Arbery down and trapping him between two pickup trucks, she said.
Defense attorneys, who said that Travis McMichael saw Arbery in a house under construction in their neighborhood 12 days before the killing, argued that Dunikoski had mischaracterized the law to the jury.
The relevant statute states: “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, a private person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion.”
Judge Timothy Walmsley said that text would be included in instructions to the jury, which includes and one Black juror and 11 white ones.
On Monday, Dunikoski introduced the issue of Arbery’s skin color: The men attacked Arbery, she argued, “because he was a black man running down the street.”
Defense attorneys pushed back on the prosecution’s narrative, arguing that Arbery was not an innocent person simply jogging down the street.
Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, said the defendants had reasonable suspicion that Arbery had committed burglaries in their neighborhood and, therefore, “the right to perform a citizen’s arrest.”
He said that his client believed that Arbery was a “recurring intruder” who had committed burglary and might be armed.
Residents of Satilla Shores were jittery and fearful after a string of trespassing incidents and burglaries, Sheffield said, and a security camera captured images of Arbery inside a house under construction multiple times, including on the day of the shooting.
On Tuesday, Dunikoski argued that that the defendants had no knowledge of Arbery’s intent and no evidence that he had committed burglary. The distinction is significant because burglary is a felony, but criminal trespass is a misdemeanor, which is not grounds for a citizen’s arrest.
She reminded the jury that a neighbor, Matt Albenze, called a non-emergency phone number — not 911 — on Feb. 23 to report Arbery’s presence at the house. Unlike the defendants, Albenze did not think Arbery’s presence was of urgent concern.
In arguing that the killing was an act of self-defense, Sheffield pointed out that Travis McMichael fired his gun only after Arbery came around the side of his truck, lunged at him and reached for the weapon.
McMichael “was afraid,” his lawyer argued.
Dunikoski pushed back, asking jurors: “Do you really believe he had no other choice but to use his shotgun? No other choice?”
Bryan’s attorney worked to distance his client from the McMichaels, pointing out that he did not know they were armed until moments before Arbery was shot and that he cooperated fully with the police, even so far as to give them a crucial video of the shooting he took on his cellphone.
Dunikoski countered that Bryan helped the McMichaels by chasing him with his pickup truck, running him into a ditch and then steering him toward the McMichaels.
“It doesn’t matter who actually pulled the trigger,” she said. “Under the law, they’re all guilty, even of malice murder.”
In the video taken by Bryan, Arbery can be seen running along a winding road shaded by live oak trees toward a parked pickup truck. Gregory McMichael is standing up in the truck bed with a handgun, and Travis McMichael stands beside the open driver-side door holding a shotgun.
As Arbery runs past the truck on the passenger side, the camera pans away briefly to show Arbery swerving to the left and disappearing briefly from view behind the truck. A gunshot rings out, and Arbery can be seen on the driver’s side tussling with Travis McMichael over the gun. A second shot rings out, and Arbery wrestles with McMichael. A third shot is fired at point-blank range and Arbery stumbles to the ground.
The McMichaels were not arrested after the shooting, even though law enforcement officers found Gregory McDonald, a former police officer and investigator with the local district attorney’s office, with blood on his hands.
In May 2020 — after mounting national criticism of local prosecutors’ handling of the case and more than 10 weeks since the shooting — the Georgia Bureau of Investigation charged the father and son with felony murder and aggravated assault.