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Jury begins deliberations in hate crimes trial of Arbery's killers

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

A federal jury in Brunswick, Ga., is now deliberating in the hate crimes trial of three white men previously convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. He was the Black man shot to death while running near Brunswick in 2020. The defendants, Travis and Greg McMichael and William Roddie Bryan, are charged with violating Arbery's civil rights.

NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now. And a note that her reporting contains details of racist language and actions.

So Debbie, these men were already convicted or already sentenced to life in prison on a state murder conviction. Remind us why they're now in federal court.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Well, at issue here is whether this crime was racially motivated. Prosecutors say the defendants targeted Ahmaud Arbery because he was Black. Now, there's no dispute that they chased Arbery down with pickup trucks and Travis McMichael killed him at close range with a shotgun. The hate crime charges here include interfering with Arbery's right to use public streets because of race and attempted kidnapping.

RASCOE: But before starting deliberations, the jury heard closing arguments today. Start with the prosecutors. What did they have to say?

ELLIOTT: That the McMichaels and Roddie Bryan acted on racial assumptions, racial resentment and racial anger that had been building for years. The closings included a recap of all of the evidence presented during the trial of how these defendants used hateful racial slurs and associated Black people with criminality. The McMichaels in particular also advocated arming themselves for vigilante justice.

In her final closing comments to the jury, assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons said Ahmaud Arbery was killed because of the defendant's inability to see him as a fellow human. But instead, she said they saw him in offensive, racist stereotypes. And in this dramatic moment, she quoted a list of the terms that each of these men had used, including the N-word, monkey, rat, subhuman, savage. She also noted that they showed no remorse as Arbery was bleeding in the street.

RASCOE: So what about the defense? What was their final argument?

ELLIOTT: You know, no one disputed the vile, racist comments. One of the attorneys even called them repugnant. But they argued that those past comments were circumstantial and that the government failed to prove that race was the reason they went after Ahmaud Arbery. Specifically, attorneys for the McMichaels argued that the men were hypervigilant about protecting their neighborhood, and they chased Arbery not because he was a Black man running down their street but because he'd been seen on surveillance video entering a home construction site four times at night without permission.

And then the lawyer for Roddie Bryan said he joined in the pursuit when he saw the McMichaels chasing Arbery and yelling, stop, that it was somehow reasonable to assume that a man running away was possibly fleeing from a crime. So now it's up to this jury to decide if they believe race was the motivating factor.

RASCOE: All right. Just quickly, members of Ahmaud Arbery's family have been in court listening to all this. What was their reaction?

ELLIOTT: You know, outside the courthouse today, Wanda Cooper Jones talked about just how hard it's been to listen to all of this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANDA COOPER JONES: Very emotional. This has been very draining, and I'm thankful that it's almost over.

ELLIOTT: She's hopeful the verdict will come before Wednesday. That will mark two years since her son was murdered.

RASCOE: NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thank you.

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

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.

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