According to the closing arguments delivered by a federal prosecutor in the hate crimes trial of the three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery on Monday, the defendants had targeted Mr. Arbery because of his race and refused to assist him after he was shot because they considered him to be “subhuman.”
In their defence, the defence counsel maintained that their clients had pursued Mr. Arbery because they suspected that he had committed a crime.
In addition, defence attorneys asserted that despite abundant evidence that the men held bigoted beliefs — such as referring to Black people as animals — and that two of them repeatedly used racist slurs, there was insufficient evidence to prove that racism was the reason they had pursued Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, through their neighbourhood on a Sunday afternoon in February 2020.
On Monday afternoon, a jury began deliberating on whether the five-minute chase that ended in Mr. Arbery’s death constituted a crime of interfering with his right to use public streets because of his “race and colour,” as the indictment put it, a crime of interfering with his right to use public streets because of his “race and colour.”
They have already been found guilty of murder in state court and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole for only one of the defendants, Travis McMichael. The other defendant, William Bryan, has already been found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. According to the federal case, which includes a charge of attempted abduction as well as firearms charges against the McMichaels, they may face further jail terms of up to life imprisonment.
However, none of the evidence provided indicated that these slurs and insults were explicitly directed at Mr. Arbery. The jury’s judgement on whether or not the prosecution established a sufficient relationship between the defendants’ earlier racist utterances and the actions they took on the day of the killing will now determine the outcome of the trial.
The trial will serve as a high-profile litmus test for the Department of Justice. Earlier this year, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland pledged to make the investigation and prosecution of hate crimes a “top priority,” a commitment that comes at a time when the number of recorded hate crimes has reached its highest level in more than a decade.
In her closing remarks, the attorney representing Travis McMichael admitted that the information given in court about his bigotry was upsetting to her client. Although Amy Lee Copeland, the lawyer who represented the family, pointed out that racist remarks were not criminal, and she claimed that the government had not done enough to demonstrate that the chase and killing were motivated by race. She said that Mr. McMichael felt Mr. Arbery was attempting to attack him, and that Mr. McMichael was acting in self-defense when he opened fire.
In an interview with J. Pete Theodocion, an attorney representing Mr. Bryan, said that his client would have assisted in pursuing any individual who was being followed down his neighbourhood, regardless of their colour. According to the author, “his instincts told him that people do not be hounded like that, that people do not get chased like that unless they’ve done something bad.”
Earlier this year, A.J. Balbo, an attorney representing Greg McMichael, said that the police had showed Mr. McMichael surveillance recordings showing Mr. Arbery inside a property under construction near the McMichaels’ home on prior occasions. That meant that on the afternoon of February 23, 2020, when Mr. Arbery went by Mr. McMichael, Mr. McMichael recognised Mr. Arbery.
‘When he’s in his driveway and he glances up, he may not have recognised Mr. Arbery’s name, but Mr. McMichael recognised him as a familiar face,’ Mr. Balbo said of Mr. McMichael.
Mr. Balbo posed a hypothetical question to the jury: What if a Black guy who did not look like Mr. Arbery had ran down the street that day — say, a 350-pound man with a towering mohawk — had been shot and killed? Mr. Balbo said that Mr. McMichael would not have pursued after a guy of such character.
Mr. Balbo further pointed out that, despite the fact that his client had made racially inflammatory utterances, there was no evidence produced at trial to show that he had used racial slurs. During the trial, detectives said that they were unable to thoroughly examine Mr. McMichael’s encrypted smartphone for digital proof of his previous activity because of the encryption method used.
The fact that Mr. Bryan had informed investigators that Travis McMichael had used a racial epithet in the minutes after the shooting of Mr. Arbery was not disclosed to the jury in this case was notable. Due to Mr. Bryan’s use of his Fifth Amendment right not to testify, it is possible that this key element, which was contested by Mr. McMichael’s attorneys, was not mentioned during the trial.
Mr. McMichael would have been robbed of his Sixth Amendment right to face his accuser as a result of this decision.