BRUNSWICK, GA —
The three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery acted out of "racial anger" when they chased down the young Black man as they saw him jogging through their Georgia community, a federal prosecutor told jurors at the defendants' hate-crimes trial Monday.
Defense lawyers argued that their clients, despite a lengthy record of bigoted social discourse shown in court, pursued Arbery because they were suspicious of his conduct, not because of his race.
Judge Lisa Wood sent the predominantly white jury out to deliberate Monday afternoon after they listened to hours of closing arguments in a case probing whether vigilantism directed against a Black person in this case crossed the boundary of racially motivated violence as defined by U.S. law.
The defendants - Travis McMichael, 36; his father, Gregory McMichael, 66; and neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan, 52 - have already been convicted of murder in state court and sentenced to life in prison in an earlier trial that largely skirted racial issues and focused on proving a homicide case.
Arbery, 25, was out for an afternoon jog on Feb. 23, 2020, when the McMichaels spotted him running by their home, grabbed their guns and jumped in their pickup truck to follow him. Bryan joined the chase in his own truck before Aubrey was cornered and confronted face to face by the younger McMichael, who fired three shotgun blasts at Aubrey at close range, killing him.
Arbery's name became entwined with a host of others invoked in protests that swept the country after an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, was killed by a white police officer kneeling on Floyd's neck until he could no longer breathe in May 2020.
The federal prosecution of Arbery's killers marks the first instance in which those convicted of such a high-profile murder are facing a jury in a hate-crimes trial.
Christopher Perras, a special litigator for the U.S. Justice Department's civil rights division, said in his summation Monday that Arbery was singled out by the defendants because of the color of his skin.
"They were motivated by racial assumption, racial resentment and racial anger," Perras said, referring to the defendants. "They saw a Black man in their neighborhood and they thought the worst of him."
Perras cited trial testimony showing the defendants had a long history of making overtly, sometimes violently racist comments about Black people in text messages, social media and conversations with others.
The proceedings were attending on Monday by several members of Arbery's family, including his parents, Marcus Arbery Sr., and Wanda Coooper-Jones.
Defense attorneys countered that their clients believed they recognized Arbery from previous videos taken by a neighbor showing a person lurking on four occasions around a vacant house under construction amid a series of property thefts in the community.
"If you ask, 'Would these defendants have grabbed guns and done this to a white guy?' and the answer is yes," said defense lawyer Amy Lee Copeland, representing Travis McMichael, the man who fired the three shotgun blasts that killed Arbery.
She and fellow defense lawyers said the record of past derogatory statements made by her clients about Black people failed to prove their actions on the day of Arbery's killing were racially motivated.
Copeland said prosecutors presented no evidence that her client "ever spoke to anyone about Mr. Arbery in racial terms" or used a racial slur on the day of the killing. And she added that the government never connected McMichael to any white supremacist or hate groups.
A.J. Balbo, the attorney Gregory McMichael, argued that the defendants were motivated by a desire to protect their neighborhood.
Pete Theodocion, Bryan's attorney, argued the evidence of racism was merely "circumstantial."
"Yes, the N-word six times is six times too many, but it is not evidence (of a hate crime)," he told jurors.
All three men are charged with depriving Arbery of his civil rights by attacking him because of his race, as well as with attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels are additionally charged with a federal firearms offense.
The hate-crimes felony, the most serious of the charges, carries a maximum penalty of life in prison.
Both McMichaels had agreed last month to plead guilty to the federal hate-crimes offense, and the son acknowledged in court that he singled out Arbery because of his "race and color."
But Judge Wood rejected the plea bargain because it bound her to a 30-year sentence that prosecutors had agreed would be served in a federal lockup before the men were returned to the Georgia prison system, widely perceived as a tougher environment for inmates compared with federal penitentiaries.
The plea deals were then withdrawn, and all three defendants proceeded to trial.