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Closing arguments are next in the hate crimes trial over Arbery's death


Closing arguments are happening today in the federal hate crimes trial of the three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. The 25-year-old Black man was jogging through a coastal Georgia neighborhood two years ago when the men chased him down and killed him. They've been sentenced to life in prison on the state murder conviction but now face federal civil rights charges. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now. Debbie, remind us who the defendants are and what this federal trial is all about.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan are charged with attempted kidnapping and using force to interfere with Ahmaud Arbery's right to use a public street. Federal prosecutors say the defendants targeted Arbery because he was Black. They chased him with pickup trucks until he was cornered, and then Travis McMichael shot him to death at close range with a pump-action shotgun.

Now, the facts of the murder are not in dispute. The question here is motive, why these men went in pursuit of Ahmaud Arbery as he ran through their neighborhood outside of Brunswick, Ga. Prosecutors say it's because they assumed the only reason a Black man might be running down their street was to flee after committing a crime. It's an assumption prosecutors say they would not have made had a white man been out for a run.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, testimony ended Friday, Debbie. How did the government go about showing that the defendants were motivated by racism?

ELLIOTT: Pretty much using the men's own words to show that long before they killed Arbery, they held racist, defensive and demeaning views of Black people. And in the case of the McMichaels in particular, they supported violence against African Americans and vigilante justice. That evidence came from cellphone messages, social media posts, as well as conversations.

On Friday, a white woman who served under Travis McMichael in the Coast Guard testified, and she said he made racist and vulgar sexual comments to her after he learned that she had once dated a Black man. The prosecutors played jailhouse tape recordings in which Greg McMichael was heard on the telephone referring to Arbery's killing and saying no good deed goes unpunished. There was also evidence that the third defendant, Roddie Bryan, had used racial slurs in objecting to his daughter dating an African American, and he made offensive comments about the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.

MARTÍNEZ: How are the men defending themselves?

ELLIOTT: Well, none of the defendants testified. I think most of the defense will come in the closing arguments today. You know, no witnesses were called by lawyers for either Travis McMichael or Roddie Bryan. Greg McMichael's attorney only put on one witness - very brief testimony from one of their neighbors.

During opening statements, defense attorneys denounced the racist views of their clients. I expect them to do that again today. And then they argued that there's no evidence that these men chased Ahmaud Arbery because he was Black. They say they went after him because, quote, he was "the guy" that they'd seen on surveillance video wandering around a home under construction without permission at night on several occasions. But testimony emphasized that nothing was ever stolen from that construction site, and Arbery was never seen with a weapon or anything in his hands.

MARTÍNEZ: As you mentioned, closing arguments today. Could the jury begin deliberations as early as today?

ELLIOTT: Perhaps. Prosecutors and the three defense lawyers will each offer their closing arguments, which could take much of the day. Then the judge will charge the jury, explaining the law for this case. Getting a verdict - this case could have some symbolic meaning in Brunswick. You know, Wednesday marks two years since Arbery was murdered. There are memorial events planned, including a march and wreath-laying in the Satilla Shores neighborhood where he was killed.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Debbie, thanks.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.