Jurors were due to resume deliberations on Tuesday in the federal hate-crimes trial of three white men convicted of state murder charges for chasing down and killing Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man out jogging through their Georgia neighborhood.
The predominately white U.S. District Court jury received the case against Travis McMichael, 36, his father and former police officer Gregory McMichael, 66, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, on Monday afternoon after closing arguments from prosecutors and defense lawyers.
The 12-member panel, consisting of nine white and three Black people, deliberated just under three hours on Monday before Judge Lisa Wood adjourned proceedings in the Brunswick, Georgia, courthouse for the evening.
Wednesday marks the second anniversary of the killing.
All three defendants are charged with depriving Arbery of his civil rights, a “hate-crimes” offense alleging racially motivated violence. They also face attempted kidnapping charges in the deadly 2020 encounter, which unfolded in the coastal Georgia subdivision of Satilla Shores near Brunswick, about 270 miles southeast of Atlanta.
The McMichaels additionally were charged with a federal firearms felony, while Bryan faced no such charge.
The hate-crimes charge, the most serious contained in the indictment returned against the defendants, carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Attempted kidnapping is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
The three men have already received life terms in state court after being found guilty of murder and other crimes in the fatal shooting of Arbery, a onetime high school football star who worked for a truck-washing company and his father’s landscaping business.
The earlier trial largely skirted racial issues, with state prosecutors concentrating on a straightforward murder case against the three men.
RACISM AND VIGILANTISM?
The jurors in the federal trial must decide a more nuanced question – whether the government proved that the defendants were driven by racism, not just vigilantism, when they pursued Arbery with guns through the streets of a predominantly white suburban community in pickup trucks.
The Feb. 23, 2020, chase ended with Arbery cornered and Travis McMichael firing three shotgun blasts at point-blank range that left Arbery dead at the scene.
Cellphone video of the incident recorded by Bryan stirred public outrage when it surfaced on social media some two months later, at a time when police had yet to make arrests in the case.
Civil rights activists said the lag time in charging Arbery’s assailants exemplified a pattern of U.S. law enforcement allowing white perpetrators to go unpunished in the unjustified killing of Black people.
Arbery’s name became entwined with a host of others invoked in protests that swept the country after an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, George Floyd, was killed by a white policeman kneeling on Floyd’s neck until he could no longer breathe in May 2020.
The federal prosecution of Arbery’s killers marks the first instance in which those convicted of such a high-profile murder are facing a jury in a hate-crimes trial.
Prosecutors presented jurors with a lengthy history of overtly, sometimes violently, racist slurs and social media commentary by the three men as evidence that the defendants had singled out Arbery because of the color of his skin.
“They were motivated by racial assumption, racial resentment and racial anger,” Christopher Perras, a special litigator for the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division, said in his summation on Monday. “They saw a Black man in their neighborhood and they thought the worst of him.”
Defense attorneys focused on Arbery’s conduct, arguing the McMichaels chased after him not because he was Black but because they had seen him on four previous occasions at night at a house under construction and believed his actions were suspicious.
Bryan’s lawyer said his client joined the pursuit in his own truck when he saw the McMichaels driving after Arbery yelling at him to stop and assumed the man they were chasing was running away because he had “done something wrong.”
The defense did not deny the bigoted social discourse and racial epithets of their clients over the years but insisted those did not prove racist intent for their actions toward Arbery.
The two McMichaels had agreed last month to plead guilty to the hate-crimes offense, with the younger of the two acknowledging at a federal court hearing that he singled out Arbery because of his “race and color.”
The judge rejected the plea bargain because it bound her to a 30-year sentence that prosecutors had agreed would be served in a federal lockup before the men were returned to the Georgia prison system, widely perceived as a tougher environment for inmates compared with federal penitentiaries.
The plea deals were then withdrawn, and all three defendants proceeded to trial.