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Defense attorneys blame Ahmaud Arbery for his own death during closing arguments

An attorney for the man who fatally shot Arbery in Georgia last year told jurors that his client had a responsibility to chase the 25-year-old Black jogger.

(CN) — Attorneys delivering closing arguments Monday in the Georgia trial over the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery presented jurors with two very different versions of the 25-year-old’s final moments.

The prosecution painted a picture of an unarmed Black man, terrified and running for his life from armed vigilantes who wanted to kill him solely “because he was a Black man running down the street.”

Defense attorneys, however, repeatedly blamed Arbery for his own death and told the panel of mostly white jurors that Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael chased Arbery, whom they suspected of being a burglar, out of a sense of duty to protect their neighborhood and detain him for police.

The McMichaels, along with their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, face charges including malice and felony murder for chasing Arbery through the streets of their coastal Georgia neighborhood before the younger McMichael shot him twice with a 12 gauge Remington shotgun.

Video of the shooting recorded by Bryan has become the central piece of evidence in the case. No one was arrested for the killing until after the video leaked nearly three months later and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took the case over from local authorities.

Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told the jury Monday that Arbery was “under attack” by the defendants, who assumed “based on rumor and neighborhood talk on Facebook” that he was responsible for burglaries at a nearby unfinished home.

“All three of these defendants made assumptions about what was going on that day,” Dunikoski said. “And they made their decision to attack Ahmaud Arbery in their driveways because he was a Black man running down the street.”

Attorneys for the McMichaels have argued throughout the 11-day trial they were trying to make a citizen’s arrest on Arbery and only chased him because they wanted to prevent him from escaping the police.

The state has repeatedly pointed out that the defendants did not use the terms “citizen’s arrest," “detain” or “trespass” when they were questioned by police immediately after the shooting.

Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law, which was repealed in response to Arbery’s killing, gave private citizens the right to detain someone if a crime was committed in their presence or if they had “reasonable” grounds to believe that the person was escaping a felony.

Arbery was spotted on surveillance footage entering the home under construction at least five times before his death on Feb. 23, 2020. There is no evidence that he ever stole anything from the house.

Laura Hogue, an attorney for Greg McMichael, referred to Arbery as a “nighttime intruder” who often trespassed at the construction site and “knew exactly why the McMichaels were trying to detain him.”

Hogue added that Arbery did not “deserve” to die for visiting the unfinished house.

“He 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,” she said.

Dunikoski told jurors the citizen’s arrest defense was “completely made up for trial," arguing that none of the defendants ever actually observed Arbery commit any crime or knew for sure that any crime had been committed.

But Jason Sheffield, an attorney representing Travis McMichael, argued that his client had grounds to believe Arbery was a burglar based on the videos he had seen of Arbery inside the unfinished home and an incident days before the shooting when he thought he saw Arbery duck into the shadows and reach into his pants for what McMichael believed was a gun.

The attorney said that McMichael’s nine years of service as a boarding officer in the U.S. Coast Guard drilled a sense of “duty and responsibility” into him. McMichael “trained relentlessly in his responsibilities” and learned how to “make decisions in critical moments of policing,” Sheffield said.

The attorney told jurors that McMichael was acting off his training when he “took it upon himself” to begin investigating crime in the neighborhood.

Sheffield said McMichael never intended to kill Arbery but was left with no choice when Arbery ran at him and the two began struggling for control of the shotgun.

“He never, ever when he left his driveway that day thought things would end up this way, not ever” Sheffield said, calling Arbery’s death “absolutely horrific and tragic.”

During his testimony last week, Travis McMichael said he pulled his shotgun out of his truck with the belief that it would deescalate the situation and cause Arbery to run away.

“He’s allowed to stay where he thinks he’s lawfully allowed to be and to try to defend himself and others,” Sheffield said, adding that there is “not one single question” that Arbery was “assaulting” McMichael as the two grappled for the weapon.

“This is where the law is intertwined with heartache and tragedy. You are allowed to defend yourself, you are allowed to use force that is likely to cause death or serious bodily injury if you believe it is necessary. At that moment, Travis believed this was necessary,” he said.

Dunikoski told jurors that McMichael's self-defense claim does not hold water, explaining that a person is only justified in using force when they reasonably believe they must defend against another person’s use of imminent force.

“Where’s the imminent use of force by Mr. Arbery? What was he doing? He’s running away from Mr. Bryan’s truck,” Dunikoski said. “He’s trapped between two cars … with nobody out there to help him. He’s not threatening anybody. He’s just running away from a man with a shogun.”

Attorney Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, told jurors that his client did not fire any shots, was not the direct cause of Arbery’s death, and cannot be convicted of murder.

“He was armed only with his cell phone,” Gough said, adding that Bryan showed officers the video he had created immediately after they responded to the crime scene.

As he has done repeatedly throughout the trial, Gough emphasized Bryan’s willingness to cooperate with police, telling the panel that “without Roddie Bryan there is no case.”

Dunikoski said Bryan’s cooperation after the fact “does not erase the participation in the crime.”

Using the analogy that all players on a football team receive a Super Bowl ring if the team wins, Dunikoski said: “Everybody’s involved. Everybody’s responsible.”

Before the proceedings wrapped up, Gough raised his seventh motion for mistrial — this time based on concerns about the New Black Panther Party’s presence outside the courthouse. The judge denied the motion but elected to move the jury to a room away from the exterior of the building to prevent them from hearing the crowd of demonstrators gathered outside.

Nearly 200 people took part in the rally outside the courthouse, some armed with guns and others with signs and megaphones. One group displayed a coffin embellished with the names of dozens of Black victims of police brutality and vigilantism.

Court will reconvene Tuesday at 8:30 a.m. for the prosecution’s rebuttal. Jurors are expected to begin deliberations afterward.

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