In closing arguments, defense lawyers try to blame Ahmaud Arbery for his own death

During closing arguments Monday in the trial of three men charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an African American shot in 2020 while jogging in Glynn County, Ga., lawyers for the defendants each employed different strategies to try to show that the killing of the unarmed 25-year-old was justified.

Jason Sheffield, defense attorney for Travis McMichael, 35, focused on his client’s character and how he felt during the fateful encounter with Arbery. He said McMichael, who fired the three shots that killed Arbery, believed him to be a burglar.

Defense attorney Jason B. Sheffield
Defense attorney Jason Sheffield. (Stephen B. Morton/Pool/AP)

“You do have the right to have a firearm when you make an arrest. You do have the right to stop a person and hold them and detain them. There is risk with that. There are tragic consequences that can come from that,” Sheffield argued.

McMichael also feared Arbery could’ve been armed as well, so his client raised his gun “to defend himself, to protect himself,” Sheffield told the jury.

Representing Gregory McMichael, 52, attorney Laura Hogue chose to try to portray Arbery as lacking in moral character, and attempted to blame him for the encounter that took his life. She painted a picture of Arbery as a “recurring intruder” who repeatedly trespassed when entering an open construction site of a neighborhood home.

She suggested that Arbery should’ve stopped when the defendants tried to detain and question him.

“Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts, with no socks to cover his long dirty toenails,” she said.

Defense attorney Laura Hogue speaks during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery at the Glynn County Courthouse on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. (Sean Rayford/Pool Photo via AP)
Defense attorney Laura Hogue speaks during the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery at the Glynn County Courthouse on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. (Sean Rayford/Pool Photo via AP)

“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,” she said.

Watching the proceedings, Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones reacted in disgust to Hogue’s performance, uttering, “Wow!” before standing and leaving her seat in the courtroom, CNN reported.

The prosecution contends that Arbery never broke in or took anything from the home in question where surveillance videos captured him on multiple occasions, including on the day of his death.

Kevin Gough, attorney for William Bryan, stated that his client had no clue that the McMichaels were in possession of weapons at the time they were pursuing Arbery. Bryan took the video that eventually leaked and led to the charges for the killing.

“He did not know and could not know that Arbery would be shot. By that time, sadly, there was nothing that Roddie Bryan could do to prevent this tragedy. He didn’t shoot anyone. At the time of the shooting, he was some distance back, he was armed only with his cellphone,” Gough said.

William Bryan, right
William "Roddie" Bryan, right, sits with his attorneys before the start of closing arguments. (Stephen B. Morton/Pool/AP)

He made the case that there’d be no case without his client, because he had filmed the killing on his cellphone.

“The reason that you can have this trial is because of Roddie Bryan,” Gough said.

The prosecution’s argument

Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski offered a very different account of what transpired on Feb. 23, 2020. While Arbery was jogging, she said, the defendants trapped him between their two pickup trucks “with no weapon, no way for anyone to help him.”

She argued that they had no probable cause in the shooting, saying Arbery was no threat to anyone and was “just running away” from the defendants, who, without evidence, suspected him of being a burglar and took matters into their own hands.

Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski. (AStephen B. Morton/Pool/AP)

“You can’t be the unjustified aggressor. You can’t create the situation and then say that you were defending yourself. You just can’t do ... you just can’t do it,” Dunikoski said.

“They shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery. They all acted as a party to the crime. But for their actions, but for their decisions, but for their choices, Ahmaud Arbery would be alive, and that’s why they’ve been indicted with murder, felony murder and the four felonies that led to the murder.”

Arbery, she noted, had not threatened any of the three men.

“They try to unlawfully confine and detain Ahmaud Arbery without legal authority. They did not see him commit any crime. It was not a citizen’s arrest. They are not law enforcement officers.”

Last-minute drama raised by the defense

Before making closing arguments, Gough made a motion for a mistrial because a “mob” outside the courthouse would prejudice the jury’s verdict.

Gough said his co-counsel had gone outside during a recess and concluded there were “matters that need to be put on the record.”

“Your honor, protesters, whether they were the Black Panther group or some other group, were behind the barriers in front of the courthouse,” Gough told the judge.

Black Lives Matter and Black Panther protesters
Dozens of Black Lives Matter and Black Panther protesters gather outside the Glynn County Courthouse. (Stephen B. Morton/AP)

“There was a truck carrying a coffin with the names of the defendants on it. At least one of these groups, I believe it was the Black Panther group, is referenced in the motion filed this morning that their specific objective was to influence the proceedings in this case. Large weapons, apparently automatic weapons, were seen outside the courthouse.”

Attorneys for the McMichaels expressed concern but did not join the motion.

“If it’s folks exercising their First Amendment rights outside and our jury is unaware of it, then we are OK,” said Hogue, who represents the elder McMichael.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley said that while he shared the general concerns about safety “individuals have a right to be outside the courthouse.” He then denied the motion for mistrial.

Black Lives Matter and Black Panther protesters
Stephen B. Morton/AP

Regarding the coffins, Dunikoski later said her team checked and saw that Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd’s names were on the coffins, not the defendants’.

Gough had previously called for the removal of Black civil rights leaders, who were in attendance in support of the Arbery family, from the courtroom gallery.

“Obviously, there’s only so many pastors they can have,” Gough said, adding, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here, or any Jesse Jackson, or whoever was in here earlier this week.”

Gough apologized for any offense his remarks had caused, and Walmsley refused to remove anyone from the hearings. He stood by his ruling on Monday when Gough made an official motion to remove the Rev. Jesse Jackson from the courtroom. Gough’s multiple motions for a mistrial have been denied.