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In initial closing arguments, an 'attack on Ahmaud Arbery' vs. 'watching, waiting, believing'

After closing arguments conclude on Monday, a Glynn County jury will begin to decide if the killing of Ahmaud Arbery amounted to murder.

GLYNN COUNTY, Ga. — One important fact about the trial for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery is that there were not, actually, many facts in dispute.

There was video that captured the killing itself, and several additional surveillance and police bodycam videos presented during the trial that depicted crucial moments in the weeks and months leading to Arbery's death.

The basic facts of Arbery's death were well-known, and well-documented.

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As closing arguments began Monday, where attorneys made their case to a jury that will soon begin determining whether the killing amounted to murder, the emphasis was in interpreting those facts.

For the prosecution, the events of Feb. 23, 2020 were an "attack on Ahmaud Arbery" - initiated by father and son Greg and Travis McMichael, borne out of unjustified suspicions and assumptions about the 25-year-old Black man.

For Travis McMichael's defense attorneys, it was a tactical, restrained process of "watching and waiting" to stop Arbery, by someone who had both law enforcement training and reasonable grounds for believing a crime had been committed - which turned into a tragic case of self-defense when Travis shot and killed Arbery.

Speaking first, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski reiterated her opening theme of "assumptions and driveway decisions" - arguing that when they began pursuing Arbery, the McMichaels acted, essentially, out of bias and reckless impulse, rather than a considered sense of civic duty and evidentiary responsibility.

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"They didn't know what he's doing. They don't know why he's out there running. They don't have immediate knowledge, they have no knowledge - they have speculation," she said.

Dunikoski argued, as earlier in the trial, the idea of a citizen's arrest in the strictly legal sense was never mentioned by anyone the day Arbery was killed. And the idea, she said, that there was probable cause for them to begin pursuit because of a known theft at an unfinished home in the neighborhood months before was "completely made up for trial."

"All three of these defendants made assumptions about what was going on that day and they made their decision (in their driveways) to attack Ahmaud Arbery because he was a Black man running down the street," she said.

Attacking the idea Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense, Dunikoski compared the McMichaels and Bryan to bullies who provoke a response out of their target.

"What does the kid who's being bullied do? He takes it and he takes it and takes it until he can't anymore and he finally shoves the one bully, and what does that bully do? BAM. Punches the target child, right? What's the bully always say? 'He started it. He pushed me. I was defending myself,'" Dunikoski said. "The law knows people do this. The law knows people will goad other people into defending themselves so that they can claim, 'I was acting in self defense.' You can't do that."

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Defense attorney Jason Sheffield countered with a portrait of Travis McMichael as a conscientious resident of his neighborhood who was, through his history with the Coast Guard, particularly qualified to try and protect it.

"Duty and responsibility, and following the law, will always be intertwined with heartache and tragedy," he said. "This case is about three things: It's about watching, it's about waiting, it's about believing."

Sheffield characterized McMichael as someone who "spent almost a decade of his life learning about duty and responsibility" in the Coast Guard, who had "received extensive training on how to make decisions that will ultimately impact his beliefs."

The defense, which brought numerous resident witnesses to testify to their contention the Satilla Shores neighborhood was "on edge" leading up to Arbery's death due to increasing crime, again said the neighborhood was "covered in suspicious persons, in extra watches, neighborhood patrols, concerned citizens - it was everywhere." 

Sheffield also challenged the idea of Arbery as someone who had been jogging in the neighborhood, saying there was "no evidence that Ahmaud Arbery ever jogged or exercised in Satilla Shores," and "not one friend, not one family member, not one eyewitness" who would back up that he frequented the neighborhood for exercise.

He contended against this backdrop, Travis McMichael was someone vigilant about his community, and not just with regards to Arbery's appearances at the house under construction - ratting off a number of other instances in which he called police about neighborhood crimes.

While surveillance video at the unfinished home captured Arbery wandering around the premises on a number of occasions in the months before Feb. 2020, he was never seen taking or damaging anything, and he never showed up with a bag or backpack of some sort to carry anything with. The day he was killed, Arbery had nothing on him, not even a cellphone.

Sheffield nonetheless said an encounter two weeks before Arbery's death outside the home with McMichael, in which the defendant said he saw Arbery "reach into his waistband" as if for a gun, gave McMichael probable cause to suspect Arbery of burglary at the home.

Going into detail of the events the day Arbery was killed, Sheffield said McMichael took pains to avoid a violent confrontation during the five-minute pursuit, and that there were multiple points at which he could have acted more aggressively if violence was his intention.

"If Travis wanted to hurt him, to commit an aggravated assault or a false imprisonment, he could have done it... he doesn't. He talks to him," Sheffield said.

Travis McMichael, he said, was thinking "please turn, please turn, please turn" right up to the moment he and Arbery got into the struggle over his shotgun.

"He never, ever when he left his driveway thought that things would end this way," Sheffield said. "Not ever."

After attorneys for Greg McMichael and the third man charged, William "Roddie" Bryan make their closing arguments for their clients Monday, a jury will begin to decide which interpretation they side with.