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Closing arguments are to begin in the Ga. murder trial over a Black jogger's death

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The jury will hear closing arguments today in the Georgia murder trial of three white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, the Black man shot to death as he was jogging down a residential street. Nobody denies that one of the men shot and killed him. The suspects who chased him down are claiming self-defense.

NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from Brunswick, Ga. Debbie, let's start with a review of the charges and what we've learned from testimony.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: OK. Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and a neighbor of theirs, William "Roddie" Bryan, are on trial for murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment. Now, prosecutors have spent these last few weeks building a case around graphic cellphone video that was actually recorded by the defendant Bryan, and it shows the men using pickup trucks to corner Ahmaud Arbery as he's trying to run away. When Travis McMichael draws his shotgun, Arbery fights back, and McMichael shoots him at close range in a struggle.

A key moment in testimony last week came when Travis McMichael was on the witness stand in his own defense. And on cross-examination, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski zeroed in on inconsistencies between what he was testifying to on the stand and what he had told investigators back in February of 2020 when all of this happened. She also asked him what it was that prompted him and his father, Greg, to arm themselves and pursue Arbery in a pickup truck after seeing him running down the street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Didn't brandish any weapons.

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: No, ma'am.

DUNIKOSKI: Didn't pull out any guns.

MCMICHAEL: No, ma'am.

DUNIKOSKI: Didn't pull out any knife.

MCMICHAEL: No, ma'am.

DUNIKOSKI: Never reached for anything, did he?

MCMICHAEL: No.

DUNIKOSKI: He just ran.

MCMICHAEL: Yes, he was just running.

MARTINEZ: He was just running or jogging. I mean, he was getting exercise. So what will defense lawyers argue in their closing today?

ELLIOTT: Now, we should say that his family says he was jogging. The defendants will argue that he was running fast, like he was running away from something, and that's what made them suspicious. They will argue that this was an attempt at a citizen's arrest that turned tragic when Arbery fought back. They'll portray a neighborhood on edge because of car break-ins and surveillance video that showed people, including Ahmaud Arbery, trespassing at a house under construction.

McMichael, you know, admitted on the stand that he fatally shot Arbery, but he said he did so in self-defense because he was afraid when Arbery tried to get his shotgun away.

Now, people who have been watching this trial think that's going to be a tough argument given that the men went in armed pursuit of Arbery and he had no weapon. Armiah Crawford is a 35-year-old father and welder in Brunswick, and he's been coming to the courthouse in solidarity with the Arbery family. Here's how he sees it.

ARMIAH CRAWFORD: You can't pull up with a gun and be startled by the way that someone react. I mean, you - what? - two trucks deep.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Riding around - yeah, yeah.

CRAWFORD: Young Black - two trucks deep, all full of white guy with guns. Like, what exactly was y'all expecting him to do like that?

MARTINEZ: Now, after closing arguments, this case is going to go to the jury, a panel with only one Black juror. Debbie, what are people there saying about this moment?

ELLIOTT: I've heard a lot of talk about how this is a defining moment for American justice. This case has drawn a lot of scrutiny, in part because of the way it was handled in the first place. Until that cellphone video was linked - leaked on social media, police had not done anything in this case and were not going to arrest those who shot Arbery.

There have been a lot of people on the courthouse lawn in prayer, some having demonstrations throughout this trial. For some local residents, there's a little bit of angst. Even though evidence of racial animus has not been presented in the trial, that's certainly the subtext, says Rebekah Moore.

REBEKAH MOORE: They don't even realize they're racist half the time because they're just so used to saying racist things. And that's not who we are in Brunswick. It's not. Our community is so much more than those men chasing him down and murdering him - so much more than that. And that weighs on me, too, because I don't want people looking - saying, oh, just another Southern town. We're not just another Southern town.

ELLIOTT: So that's what people consider the stakes here - the closing arguments are expected to take most of today, and then the jury will get the case.

MARTINEZ: NPR's Debbie Elliott joining us from Brunswick, Ga. Debbie, thank you.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF AK'S "COMPLICATIONS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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