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Witnesses in hate crimes trial describe racist comments made by Arbery murderers

Evidence of racial slurs used by two of the three white men convicted of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder continued to pile up before prosecutors rested their case.

(CN) — The prosecution and defense both rested their cases Friday afternoon in the federal hate crimes trial of the three men convicted last year of murder and other charges in the death of Ahmaud Arbery.

As part of an effort to convince jurors that Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael targeted, chased and murdered the 25-year-old Black man due to his race, the prosecution presented testimony from three women who said the McMichaels made racist remarks in their presence.

The McMichaels chased Arbery in their pickup truck after spotting him jogging through their neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined in, filming the chase on his phone and capturing the moment Travis McMichael fired two fatal shotgun blasts at Arbery.

The men were sentenced in January to life in prison after a state court trial. They now face federal charges for attempted kidnapping and using force or the threat of force to intimidate Arbery based on his race. The McMichaels have also been charged separately with firearms offenses.

A woman who served under Travis McMichael in the U.S. Coast Guard testified Friday that he made crass comments about her sex life that made her uncomfortable and used racial slurs.

Kristie Ronquille said she met the younger McMichael when they were stationed together in Pascagoula, Mississippi. One day, while they were in a cafeteria area of the Coast Guard station, Ronquille pointed out an NBA player on a televised basketball game as someone she used to date.

Ronquille became emotional as she described how the conversation “took a turn.” She broke down on the witness stand as she told jurors that McMichael repeatedly called her an “n-word lover” and made crude remarks which she said insinuated that her sexual history was “disturbing.”

The Kentucky native said she felt “taken aback and angry” but chose not to correct McMichael or report him because she was “rather green” in the Coast Guard and did not know what resources might be available to her.

“It was the first time I’d ever heard remarks used like that,” she said through tears.

Amy Lee Copeland, an attorney representing Travis McMichael, asked Ronquille about an FBI interview in which she told an agent she was only “90% sure” he made the comments. Copeland was unable to play audio of the interview or present an interview transcript.

The jury also heard testimony from Kim Ballesteros, a neighbor who said that Greg McMichael once mocked a “difficult” tenant of his, a Black woman, during a conversation the two had about their experiences renting out properties.

Ballesteros said the elder McMichael had nicknamed the tenant “the walrus” due to her skin color and weight. He also said he disconnected the tenant’s air conditioning during the hot Georgia summer because she was late on rent.

“You should have seen how fast her big Black ass came with the rent check,” McMichael told her, Ballesteros testified.

“It was racist and uncomfortable and I was, quite frankly, disappointed,” she said.

A.J. Balbo, Greg McMichael’s attorney, said during cross-examination that Ballesteros’ testimony showed his client had been willing to rent property to Black people.

Balbo presented only one witness before resting his case: a woman who said Greg McMichael once checked out a white stranger who was camping or living under a bridge near his neighborhood, suggesting that Greg McMichael’s vigilantism was not limited by racial parameters.

Attorneys for Travis McMichael and Bryan rested their cases without calling any witnesses.

The final witness for the prosecution, Carol Sears, testified that she met Greg McMichael in 2015 when he drove her and her daughter to the airport. She explained that she was visiting Georgia for a court hearing in an unrelated case. Greg McMichael was working as an investigator for the local district attorney’s office at the time.

Sears said the elder McMichael launched into a minutes-long rant when she brought up the death of prominent civil rights activist Julian Bond.

She said Greg McMichael angrily told her: “I wish that guy had been in the ground years ago. All these Blacks are nothing but trouble. I wish they’d all die.”

Sears and her daughter sat in stunned silence for the rest of the drive.

“I didn’t say a word,” she told jurors. “I was a little afraid. I had never heard anybody speak that way before, or since.”

Throughout the week, jurors heard from a total of 20 witnesses as part of the prosecution’s effort to show that the three men harbored racial animus and expressed negative – and sometimes violent – views towards Black people. To convict the three men, the multiracial panel of jurors must unanimously find that they targeted Arbery based on his race in violation of his civil rights.

Testimony has included graphic forensic and autopsy photos, the recollections of neighbors and police investigators, and detailed recitations of racist text messages and social media posts created by the three men.

On Wednesday, an FBI analyst gave several hours of testimony outlining more than two dozen instances where Travis McMichael and Bryan used racial slurs in the months and years before Arbery’s murder.

The evidence has been so emotionally taxing that one juror asked if counseling would be available after the trial ends. U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood has indicated that counseling will be accessible to those who need it.

Defense attorneys have not made any attempt to defend their clients’ use of racist language, arguing instead that they pursued Arbery based on an honest, but incorrect, belief that he had committed crimes in the neighborhood.

Closing statements in the case are scheduled to begin Monday morning. Jury deliberations will begin soon afterward.

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