Philly’s former chief defender on why the jury convicted Ahmaud Arbery’s killers

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Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski, far right, plays a video the jury asked to see as part of their deliberation during the trial of Greg McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William

Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski, far right, plays a video the jury asked to see as part of their deliberation during the trial of Greg McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan in the Glynn County Courthouse, Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. The jury was charged with deliberating the trial on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, Pool)

Jurors on Wednesday convicted the three white men charged in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was chased, shot, and killed while running through their neighborhood. The murder convictions for the three white men come after jurors deliberated for about 10 hours. Now, the men face a minimum sentence of life in prison.

How did this happen? WHYY host Cherri Gregg spoke to Keir Bradford-Grey, former chief of the Philadelphia Defenders Association.

Note: This transcript has been edited for clarity.

So first up, your reaction to this verdict? 

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My reaction was affirming. I’ve really been following this case, and I knew that the facts here were really not in favor of the defense or a self-defense claim. And so it was very affirming that these jurors did the right thing here, listened to the evidence, and rendered the right verdict.

Let’s talk about this verdict. Defense attorneys contended that the McMichaels were attempting to execute a legal citizens’ arrest after they saw Arbery commit what they thought was a burglary. Travis McMichael then testified that he shot Arbery in self-defense, saying that Arbery turned and attacked him with his fist. The jury didn’t buy this. You’ve participated in self-defense cases. What does this case say about the limitations of self-defense claims? 

Well, a self-defense claim has to be reasonable, and it has to be supported by facts. And in this case they had facts that were opposite, because there was actually a video showing what happened. There was also information, and I think the prosecutor did an excellent job in really showing that this was a hunting down by someone who thought they had the authority to be a law enforcement or quasi-law enforcement here. And then when it went awry, they wanted to claim that they were afraid. The prosecution did a great job showing that they were the aggressor. And when Ahmaud Arbery tried to defend himself, they thought that they could use deadly force based on the type of force that they initiated. It was really a masterful work by the prosecution to show Ahmaud Arbery as someone who has not been aggressive, who is not seen committing a crime at all, and the McMichaels had no legal right to do what they did.

Yeah, and I want you to clarify that point dealing with self-defense because what is required? 

The law protects you when you use deadly force if you were not the initial aggressor, meaning you didn’t impose the force that would cause another person to react. In this case, the McMichaels pointed a gun at Ahmaud Arbery. They followed him. They continued to point the gun. And when Ahmaud Arbery tried to escape that gun and that barrell for fear of his life, they shot him. There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind, and it doesn’t take a legal mastermind to understand that that is the exact opposite of being a victim that can claim self-defense when someone now is turning on some force against the force that you initiated.

And thinking about the Kyle Rittenhouse case. That verdict came down just days ago. The jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse, where he killed two men, injured another. What was the difference between that case and the Ahmaud Arbery case? 

There was no demonstrative evidence to show what was actually happening at the scene. So the only person that could really testify as to what was happening at the time that deadly force was used was Kyle. And remember, the people that were killed there were considered Black Lives Matter/Antifa activists. So it was already in jurors’ knowledge that these people may have been out there with ill intent, doing things that were not good citizenship. So they kind of gave Kyle the benefit of the doubt that he was in a melee of people that were extremely aggressive and that the only way that he could make it out alive, in his mind, and his belief was reasonable, was to use his weapon in self-defense because he was being approached with violence that could have been deadly. I don’t think the prosecution got the witnesses that could really describe what was happening at the time that Kyle used his weapon. We had one witness that said that the only time that Kyle pointed a gun or shot at him is when he pointed his gun at Kyle. So that is self-defense there.

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My follow up to that is how critical was this video in the Ahmaud Arbery trial. Better question is, if there was no video, would they have been convicted? 

My answer is absolutely no. Remember, it took 74 days for a district attorney to even prosecute, and that was after a national outcry and a smoking gun, the video. Remember, this is a very rural county in Georgia. People feel that they have a right to protect their property, and the story and the narrative that was given was as if Ahmaud Arbery was a burglar, a thief, and so without seeing how they hunted this young man — it’s such a brazen, callous way they shot him — I don’t think people would have understood how unnecessary and mean-spirited this really was.

If you think about the national conversation about racial reckoning — I mean, you had George Floyd, you had Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. They were all three said in the same sentence in the fight for racial equality. How important was this verdict to that national conversation?

This verdict was really critical right now based on what everybody is feeling. Everybody is feeling like we have a justice system that doesn’t work for us. This was a little bit assuring, not quite. But it does give us a step in feeling like people can get justice no matter what color you are.

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