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Attorneys give closing statements in trial of men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Prosecutors and defense attorneys made their closing arguments in Brunswick, Ga., today in the trial of three white men accused of murder and other charges in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. The African American man was shot to death last year while running down a residential road after the three defendants pursued him in pickup trucks. NPR's Debbie Elliott is covering the trial and joins us from Brunswick.

Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So both sides made their final case to the jury. Let's start with the state. What did prosecutors argue today?

ELLIOTT: You know, that the defendants went in pursuit of Ahmaud Arbery in pickup trucks based on a series of flawed assumptions and driveway decisions. And for the first time today, we heard prosecutor Linda Dunikoski be very direct about those assumptions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

ELLIOTT: Travis McMichael, his father Greg, and their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan, are charged with murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment based on the fact that they chased Arbery with pickup trucks. And then Travis McMichael was actually the one who killed him with a shotgun. Now, key to the state's case has been graphic cell phone video that shows Arbery cornered by the trucks. And then he fights back when Travis McMichael draws the shotgun on him and shoots him at close range.

SHAPIRO: So the three defendants are on trial together. What did each of their lawyers argue today?

ELLIOTT: I'll start with the McMichaels' attorneys. They argue that these men were trying to make a citizen's arrest because they suspected Arbery in neighborhood break-ins. They say they were justified because the neighborhood saw Arbery as this recurring nighttime intruder who had been caught creeping around on a home construction site by some surveillance video. They portray this neighborhood in fear. And when Greg McMichael saw Arbery running down the street, the lawyers say, he thought Arbery was running away from a crime. So he ran and got his son, Travis. They got their guns, and they gave chase. Attorney Jason Sheffield, who represents Travis McMichael, says when Arbery fought back, his client acted in self-defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JASON SHEFFIELD: And Travis is thinking, if this guy gets a hold of my shotgun, this is not going to end well. He's going to end up with the shotgun and kill me.

ELLIOTT: Now, Greg McMichael's lawyer, Laura Hogue, was more direct in placing blame on Arbery for what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAURA HOGUE: He died because for whatever inexplicable, illogical reason, instead of staying where he was, he chose to fight. He chose to fight.

ELLIOTT: The lawyer for the third defendant, Roddie Bryan, who recorded the cellphone video, as I said, argued that there was no way his client had any knowledge that the McMichaels were armed and would kill Arbery and that he could do nothing to stop it. Attorney Kevin Gough very much tried to separate Bryan from any sort of vigilante activity to protect the neighborhood.

SHAPIRO: Well, how are prosecutors refuting those arguments from the defense?

ELLIOTT: By arguing that you can't be the aggressor and then turn around and claim self-defense - here's Linda Dunikoski.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DUNIKOSKI: Who brought the shotgun to the party? Who took the shotgun out of the car? Who pointed the shotgun? The guy's running - running away from them for five minutes.

SHAPIRO: OK, so that was the prosecution. What happens next?

ELLIOTT: Dunikoski has a couple of hours of rebuttal first thing tomorrow morning. And then after that, the judge will instruct jurors on the law. And there's some very complicated legal issues here. For one, what's justifiable under the citizen's arrest law at the time? The legislature has since changed that law after Arbery was killed. Then it's up to the nearly all-white jury to deliberate. And, you know, remember, Ari; there's no way to predict how long that could take.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Debbie Elliott in Brunswick, Ga., thank you.

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