BRUNSWICK, Ga. – Jurors in the case of three white men charged with killing Ahmaud Arbery deliberated for more than six hours Tuesday, weighing prosecutors’ arguments that the defendants provoked the fatal confrontation against defense attorneys’ insistence that their clients acted in self-defense.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley checked on the panel’s progress late in the afternoon. Jurors sent word that they wanted to keep working into the evening.
“We are in the process of working to reach a verdict,” the foreperson told the judge.
After more than two weeks of testimony and closing arguments, the prosecution got the last word because it carries the burden of proving its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski spent two hours Tuesday morning hammering at defense attorneys’ attempts to blame the 25-year-old Black man for his own death. Defense attorneys said Arbery lashed out violently with his fists to resist a lawful citizen’s arrest by the defendants.
“You can’t claim self-defense if you are the unjustified aggressor,” Linda Dunikoski told jurors in her final statement. “Who started this? It wasn’t Ahmaud Arbery.”
Dunikoski said Arbery’s pursuers had “no badge, no uniform, no authority” and were “just some strange guys in a white pickup truck.” And she cited their own words to police immediately after the shooting, when they said they saw Arbery running but were unsure if he had committed a crime.
“You can’t make a citizen’s arrest because someone’s running down the street and you have no idea what they did wrong,” Dunikoski said.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: The Ahmaud Arbery case
After the prosecution wrapped up, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley gave instructions to the disproportionately white jury on how to apply the law before it retired to the jury room just before 11:30 a.m. at the Glynn County courthouse in the port city of Brunswick. Deliberations began just before noon.
The case has drawn a national media spotlight to the small coastal Georgia city and rows of national media cameras were lined up outside the courthouse on Tuesday.
Arbery’s killing became part of a larger national reckoning on racial injustice after a graphic video of his death leaked online two months later.
Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael grabbed guns and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after spotting him running through their subdivision on Feb. 23, 2020. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase and recorded the video of Travis McMichael opening fire as Arbery threw punches and grabbed for McMichael's shotgun.
All three face felony charges, including malice murder, false imprisonment and aggravated assault for the killing of Arbery.
No one was charged in the killing until Bryan’s video leaked and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police. All three men are charged with murder and other offenses.
Dunikoski said Tuesday that the McMichaels and Bryan threatened Arbery both with their pickup trucks and by pointing a shotgun at him before the final confrontation in which Arbery threw punches and grabbed for the gun.
She noted that Bryan told police he used his truck to run Arbery into a ditch and cut off his route, while Greg McMichael told officers they had him “trapped like a rat.” The actions of both men, she said, directly contributed to Arbery’s death.
“It doesn’t matter who actually pulled the trigger,” Dunikoski said. “Under the law, they’re all guilty.”
She also said there was no evidence Arbery had committed crimes in the defendants’ neighborhood. She said he was never seen stealing anything the five times he was recorded by security cameras in an unfinished home under construction from which he was seen running.
“You’ve got lumber, you’ve got all this stuff,” Dunikoski said. “Mr. Arbery never shows up with a bag. He doesn’t pull up with a U-haul. ... All he does is wander around for a few minutes and then leave.”
The prosecutor told jurors someone can only make a citizen’s arrest in “emergency situations” where a crime is happening “right then and there.”
Dunikoski then put two photos up on the screen -- one photo of Arbery alive and the other of him dead and said the McMichaels and Bryan “turned this young man into that young man.”
Defense attorneys objected to Dunikoski’s explanation of citizen’s arrest because they contend the McMichaels had reason to suspect Arbery had stolen items from the home. They said the owner discovered the items missing before he installed security cameras.
“This is a misstatement of the law and the argument is improper,” Franklin Hogue, an attorney for Greg McMichael, told the judge. “There’s no way we can fix it” before the jury, he said, because defense attorneys finished their closing arguments Monday.
The judge denied the motion for mistrial.
News4Jax caught up with defense attorney Kevin Gough, who is representing Bryan, right after jurors went behind closed doors.
“I don’t’ want to jinx the process by commenting on it. We’ve got some people working very hard, trying to figure out what justice looks like in this case, so I don’t want to say anything that might interfere with that process,” Gough said.
Defense attorneys used their closing arguments Monday to argue that the McMichaels were attempting a legal citizen’s arrest when they set off after Arbery, seeking to detain and question him as a suspected burglar after he was seen running from a nearby home under construction.
Attorney Jason Sheffield said his client, Travis McMichael, fired his shotgun in self-defense after Arbery charged at him, threw punches and tried to grab the weapon. Sheffield called Arbery's death a tragedy, but one that was his own fault.
Attorneys for the other two defendants blamed Arbery as well. Laura Hogue, an attorney for Greg McMichael, said Arbery “chose to fight.” Gough questioned why Arbery didn’t call for help if he was in danger.
“Maybe that’s because Mr. Arbery doesn’t want help,” Gough said.
Walmsley’s instructions to the jury Tuesday included an explanation that ”a private citizen’s warrantless arrest must occur immediately after the perpetrations of the offense, or in the case of felonies, during the escape.”
The jurors’ decision rests on their interpretation of that law and whether Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense.