A jury on Wednesday found three men guilty of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, who’d been shot at close range while running through a residential neighborhood in Georgia. Father and son Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael, along with their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan had each been charged with aggravated assault, false imprisonment, malice murder, felony murder, and other charges. Travis McMichael was the only defendant to be convicted of malice murder.
Jurors deliberated for around 10 hours over two days after closing arguments concluded with the prosecution’s final rebuttal Tuesday morning. Throughout the two-week trial, the state described the three defendants as aggressors who had chased, cornered, and killed Arbery. The defendants claimed they suspected Arbery of a crime and had been attempting a legitimate citizen’s arrest, eventually being forced to act in self-defense.
On Feb. 23, 2020, Travis and Greg McMichaels saw 25-year-old Arbery running past Travis’ house in the neighborhood of Satilla Shores. Father and son had grabbed their guns and pursued him in a pickup truck. Bryan, a neighbor, joined the chase and recorded the final fatal encounter between Arbery and Travis McMichael on his phone. The case went without for more than two months with no arrests. After video from the shooting leaked to the public, Arbery’s death sparked protests for racial justice, as many described the shooting as a prominent instance of racial violence.
The decision comes less than a week after 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of murder charges after shooting three people — killing two — during a night of unrest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse’s successful self-defense claim sparked protests in the city, and conversations about vigilantism and perceived racial double-standards in the justice system.
Issues of race had loomed large during the trial, although the prosecution did not explicitly allege racial bias in the killing. Jury selection eliminated all but one Black juror from the panel of 12, for example, and a defense lawyer pushed unsuccessfully to bar “Black pastors” from the courtroom, claiming they could be “intimidating” or otherwise influence the jurors after the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson attended the proceedings.
In closing arguments, lead prosecutor for the state Linda Dunikoski had said the three defendants had assumed the worst about Arbery’s behavior and “attacked” him “because he was a Black man running down the street.” She repeatedly said the law did not allow a person to claim self defense if they were the “initial, unjustified aggressor” in an altercation and pointed to the decision the McMichaels made to bring guns when they chased Arbery. “You cannot create the situation, then say, ‘I was defending myself,’” she said, adding, “If you use excessive force during your self-defense you’re not justified — you’re guilty.” She also argued that one person can’t order another person to stop and talk to them, as the McMichaels said they had done with Arbery, whom they suspected in recent break-ins in the area.
Dunikoski asked the jury to find the three men guilty on all counts, even though Travis McMichaels was the one who pulled the trigger. She compared them to a football team working toward a big victory. “Everybody gets a Super Bowl ring,” she said.
Lawyers for the McMichaels argued in closing that the men were being good neighbors and never intended to hurt anyone. “Duty and responsibility and following the law will always be intertwined with heartache and tragedy,” said Jason Sheffield, a lawyer for Travis McMichael.
They framed Arbery as a criminal. Laura Hogue, the lawyer for Greg McMichael described Arbery as a “recurring nighttime intruder” in the neighborhood, pointing to several alleged instances of Arbery walking into a house that was under construction.
Hogue argued that it was Arbery’s choice to “fight,” and to run toward a man holding a shotgun that left Travis McMichael no alternative but to attempt a citizen’s arrest, which would end up killing Arbery. Hogue also drew headlines for talking about Arbery having “long, dirty toenails” when describing what he was wearing that day. Sheffield likewise claimed that although Travis McMichaels had intended to deescalate the situation rather than cause harm, he ultimately acted in defense of his life. “You are allowed to defend yourself,” Mr. Sheffield said. “At that moment, Travis believed it was necessary.”
Bryan’s lawyer, meanwhile had sought to distance Bryan from the other defendants, claiming Bryan was only there to record the incident, although Bryan had described running Arbery off the road with his truck multiple times during the chase.