By Jonathan Allen and Rich McKay
BRUNSWICK, Ga. (Reuters) – Three white men were convicted of murder on Wednesday for chasing and shooting a Black man named Ahmaud Arbery as he ran in their neighborhood, with a Georgia jury rejecting a self-defense claim in a trial that once again probed America’s divisive issues of race and guns.
The verdict was delivered by the jury, consisting of one Black man and 11 white men and women, after about a two-week trial in the coastal city of Brunswick in a case that hinged on whether the defendants had a right to confront the unarmed 25-year-old avid jogger last year on a hunch he was fleeing a crime.
Gregory McMichael, 65, his son Travis McMichael, 35, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, were charged with murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal intent to commit a felony. They face a minimum sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Jurors reached their verdict on the second day of deliberations.
There was never any dispute that the younger McMichael fired his pump-action shotgun three times at Arbery at close range on Feb. 23, 2020, in the suburban community of Satilla Shores. It was captured on a graphic cellphone video made by Bryan, stoking outrage when it emerged more than two months later and the public learned that none of the three men had been arrested.
Lawyers for the McMichaels argued that the killing was justified after Arbery ran past the McMichaels’ driveway in a neighborhood that had experienced a spate of property thefts. Both McMichaels grabbed their guns and jumped in their pickup truck in pursuit, with Bryan, unarmed, joining moments later.
Prosecutors said the defendants had “assumed the worst” about a Black man out on a Sunday afternoon jog. He was chased by the defendants for about five minutes around the looping streets.
The three men face a federal trial next year on hate-crime charges, accused in an indictment of violating Arbery’s civil rights by embarking on the fatal chase because of his “race and color.”
Some Black Americans used a despairing phrase to describe a case seen as another example of Black people falling under suspicion while innocently doing an everyday activity: “running while Black.” Arbery’s name was added to those invoked in nationwide anti-racism protests in 2020 that erupted after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, both of whom were Black.
The prosecution was widely seen as another test case in how the U.S. justice system handles instances of unarmed Black people killed by white people. During the trial, there was almost no evidence presented or discussion of race as a motive.
The issue of race hung over the trial. A nearly all-white jury was selected, and one of the defense lawyers repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, sought the removal of Black pastors and civil rights leaders including the Rev. Jesse Jackson from the courtroom.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley said he was required to accept the “race-neutral” reasons defense lawyers gave for the removal of all but one potential Black juror. Black activists said it showed again how the justice system was skewed against Black Americans.
Defense lawyers cited a Georgia law codified during the 19th century U.S. Civil War that allowed anyone to make a citizen’s arrest of someone they have reasonable suspicion is fleeing a serious crime they committed. The law was repealed in the wake of Arbery’s killing.
The elder McMichael’s lawyer, Laura Hogue, told jurors the defendants had a duty to catch Arbery, who she portrayed as a frightening burglar with “long dirty toenails,” using a description from the autopsy report.
Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski chided the defense for aiming to “malign the victim,” calling that “offensive.”
No evidence ever emerged connecting Arbery to any Satilla Shore thefts.
Travis McMichael, a former U.S. Coast Guard mechanic and the only defendant to take the witness stand, tearfully testified that he fired in self defense as Arbery grabbed the shotgun he was carrying while chasing him in the truck.
Under cross-examination by a prosecutor, he conceded he told the police hours after the shooting he could not say for sure if Arbery actually grabbed the gun.
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Brunswick; Editing by Will Dunham and Cynthia Osterman)