Ahmaud Arbery killing trial: Attorneys deliver closing arguments in case of jogger's shooting
By Eliott C. McLaughlin, Devon M. Sayers and Alta Spells, CNN
(CNN) -- Travis McMichael's attorney painted Satilla Shores, where McMichael killed Ahmaud Arbery last year, as stricken with crime, its residents as living in fear and his client as a well-trained former Coast Guardsman who was only protecting himself and his neighborhood.
In Monday's closing arguments, defense teams added there was no evidence Arbery jogged through Satilla Shores and said many in the neighborhood were on alert after Arbery had visited an under-construction structure previously.
Defense attorney Jason Sheffield's case stood in contrast to prosecutor Linda Dunikoski's closing argument that McMichael, along with his father, Gregory McMichael, and neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan Jr., had no legitimate reason to chase Arbery aside from "assumptions and driveway decisions."
The men, who are White, targeted Arbery based on his race, Dunikoski alleged, but they want the jury to believe they were conducting a citizen's arrest and that Travis McMichael acted in self-defense in shooting Arbery. In actuality, she said, the men acted on gossip and rumors and had no immediate knowledge Arbery had committed a crime, which is required to claim a citizen's arrest.
Challenged over inconsistencies in his accounts -- including when and where he told Arbery to stop, why he failed to mention citizen's arrest to police and why he told investigators he wasn't sure whether Arbery grabbed his gun -- Travis McMichael replied he was "scattered" and "mixed up" in the hours after what he described as "the most traumatic event I've ever been through in my life."
McMichael also acknowledged several times that he never saw Arbery armed, never heard Arbery threaten him and that Arbery showed no interest in conversing with McMichael.
"The state's position is all three of these defendants made assumptions," Dunikowski said, "made assumptions about what was going on that day and they made their decision to attack Ahmaud Arbery (while they were) in their driveway because he was a Black man running down the street."
The arguments follow 10 days of proceedings and testimony from 23 witnesses.
The McMichaels and Bryan face charges including malice and felony murder in the killing of Arbery, a Black man who was chased by the trio February 23, 2020. They have pleaded not guilty.
Attorneys for the three defendants concluded their closing arguments late in the afternoon. Court was adjourned until Tuesday morning, when Dunikoski will give her rebuttal.
Travis McMichael just wanted to talk, lawyer says
Travis McMichael had every right to stop and question Arbery, Sheffield said, because of a string of previous crimes in Satilla Shores. The defense attorney conceded many crimes were not reported and reminded jurors that some of the McMichaels' neighbors testified they didn't call 911 because the crimes were already over and the perpetrators gone.
Because of delays in police response, they chose to take care of matters as a neighborhood, creating a Facebook page, purchasing cameras and establishing a watch program, Sheffield said.
Compounding the McMichaels' worries was that a few weeks before the Arbery shooting, Travis McMichael encountered a man in the neighborhood who ducked into the shadows behind a house, and when Travis McMichael splashed his headlights on the man, the man pulled up his shirt and reached into his pants.
"That totally freaks out Travis," Sheffield said.
Travis McMichael "received extensive training on how to make decisions that would ultimately impact his beliefs as a petty officer and a boarding officer in the Coast Guard. He ventured into some of the most treacherous waters 200 miles off the coast of the United States. He trained relentlessly about his duty and his responsibility," Sheffield said.
"Even after active service and working in the Coast Guard, he trained weekly on what the law provided that he do, what his responsibilities were, how he would make decisions in critical moments of policing and critical moments of rescue," Sheffield added.
McMichael testified he received Coast Guard training on use of force and de-escalation. Gregory McMichael is a former police officer and a ex-prosecutorial investigator.
Because of his training, Travis McMichael pulled up alongside Arbery and tried to talk to him, Sheffield said, but Arbery "takes off running down the street." McMichael continued his pursuit and tried to de-escalate the situation -- "we want to know what's going on," the lawyer says -- but Arbery "bolts," which raised Travis McMichael's suspicions.
By the time Travis McMichael got out of his truck seconds before the shooting, he was fearing for his life, as well as the life of his father, who had suffered a hip injury, stroke and heart attack in the past, Sheffield said. If Travis McMichael's intention had been to kill Arbery, he would've done it earlier in the chase, the lawyer said, and no one's life was threatened until Arbery "ran across the front of the truck."
Prosecution: There can be no citizen's arrest
Dunikoski was emphatic that the McMichaels and Bryan were not law enforcement but rather the "initial, unjustified aggressors" in the incident, and none of them mentioned a citizen's arrest to police because they had no first-hand knowledge of a crime being committed. That much is evident by the questions they ask as they pursue Arbery, she said.
"'Hey, where are you coming from?' They don't know where he's coming from. 'What are you doing?' They don't know what he's doing. Remember Mr. Bryan heard, 'What did you steal?' They don't know what he's done. They don't know why he's out there running. They don't have immediate knowledge. They have no knowledge. They have speculation," she said.
In order to claim citizen's arrest, Dunikoski said, defendants cannot be the initial aggressor or commit a felony. "Wanting to question Ahmaud demonstrates uncertainty," Dunikoski said, and Arbery was simply being a "looky loo," inspecting an under-construction home and nothing more, she said.
A defense lawyer stopped Dunikoski during her closings and took issue with her summary of the citizen's arrest law.
The defendants committed multiple felonies, Dunikoski said, pointing out that Arbery tried to evade the men for five minutes before Travis McMichael confronted and killed him. She also cast doubt on the notion Arbery was the aggressor when he was unarmed on foot and being chased by three men, two of them armed, in two trucks.
In addition to murder charges, the defendants face counts of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
"The bottom line is but for their actions, but for their decisions, but for their choices, Ahmaud Arbery would be alive," Dunikoski said.
Laura Hogue, one of Gregory McMichael's lawyers, argued, however, that the McMichaels wanted only to contain him, not imprison him, and needed to hold him at gunpoint, not assault him. She cast their actions as a "reasonable and measured amount of force to make (Arbery) stay where he did not want to stay."
The defense teams have repeatedly tried to present Arbery as a criminal and insisted that, even if he didn't steal anything, Arbery was committing burglary because he entered the under-construction home illegally.
The property's owner, Larry English Jr., testified in September he probably told the McMichaels about incidents on his property, but he never authorized the McMichaels to confront anyone. Several people besides Arbery also entered the property, too, he said.
"Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails," Hogue told jurors.
Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, almost tripped trying to leave the courtroom after the toenails remarks, saying, "I gotta get out of here." She returned a few minutes later.
The men's lawyers outline suspicions
Arbery's family has said he was out for a jog -- a common pastime for the 25-year-old, many say -- when he was killed.
Defense attorneys say the McMichaels, suspecting Arbery of burglary, tried to conduct a citizen's arrest. Bryan, the defense says, saw the McMichaels chasing Arbery, joined the pursuit and attempted to cut Arbery off, before recording video of the younger McMichael shooting Arbery.
The McMichaels, according to their attorneys, and several neighbors were concerned about people entering an under-construction home -- and Travis McMichael had encountered a strange man in the neighborhood nearly two weeks before the shooting.
According to testimony, a neighbor called police February 23 to say a man -- later identified as Arbery -- was at the construction site. Arbery ran off as the man called police, the neighbor testified.
Hogue called Arbery a "recurring nighttime intruder," alleging he had been to the house at least four times before.
"Ahmaud Arbery was not an innocent victim plundering through Larry English's house on February 23" or the other occasions he visited the home, Hogue said.
Gregory McMichael, investigators testified, said he saw Arbery run by the McMichaels' home and decided to give chase, believing Arbery matched the description of someone who had been at the site.
The prosecution acknowledged surveillance videos show Arbery there multiple times, including the day he was killed, but says he never broke in or took anything. Witnesses also testified the McMichaels did not know at the time that Arbery had been at the site that day.
Travis McMichael testified he twice tried to talk to Arbery. Arbery did not respond, Travis McMichael said.
Bryan, prosecutors allege, saw the chase and -- not knowing what was happening -- got in his truck and joined the pursuit, at one point striking Arbery with his vehicle.
Travis McMichael eventually drove ahead of Arbery, he testified, parked his vehicle, exited and pointed his shotgun at Arbery, telling him to stop. He testified Arbery darted to him, grabbed the rifle and struck McMichael before he then shot Arbery.
"(Arbery) died because for whatever inexplicable, illogical reason -- instead of staying where he was -- whatever overwhelming reason he had to avoid being captured that day and arrested by the police, he chose to fight," Hogue said.
Bryan's presence was 'irrelevant,' attorney says
In his closing argument, Bryan's attorney Kevin Gough suggested that even if his client had not been at the scene, the outcome would have been the same.
"I would respectfully submit to you that Roddie Bryan's presence is absolutely superfluous and irrelevant to the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery," Gough said.
If the prosecution is correct that the McMichaels "were vigilantes and harbored some ill will towards Mr. Arbery, then what difference does it make whether Roddie Bryan is there or not?" he asked.
Bryan was "armed only with a cell phone," and didn't realize that Travis McMichael had a gun until seconds before the shooting, Gough said. "By that time sadly, there was nothing that Roddie Bryan could do to prevent this tragedy."
Bryan made the video of the chase and the shooting, and "without Roddie Bryan, there is no case," Gough said. "The reason that you can have this trial is because of Roddie Bryan."
Neither Bryan nor Gregory McMichael took the stand, and Sheffield suggested health concerns may have played a role in the latter's decision not to testify.
In a county that is 69% White residents and 27% Black, 11 of the 12 jurors are White. Judge Timothy Walmsley said before opening statements the court has "found that there appears to be intentional discrimination" in the jury selection, but he allowed the case to move forward.
If convicted on one of the murder charges, each man could face life in prison without the possibility of parole. All have pleaded not guilty.
All three men have also been indicted on federal hate crime and attempted kidnapping charges.
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