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Prosecution rests case in hate crimes trial of Arbery's killers

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Back now to the U.S., where testimony is now over in the federal hate crimes trial of the three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan are accused of violating Arbery's civil rights. The men chased Arbery down with pickup trucks and shot him to death while he was out for a run in their coastal Georgia neighborhood two years ago.

NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now with more. And we'll note this update includes details of racist language and actions. Hey, Deb.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. So testimony is now over because prosecutors rested their case today. Give us a recap.

ELLIOTT: Well, the final witnesses today included three white women who described conversations where the McMichaels used offensive, racist language, some of it very difficult to listen to. One of them had served in the Coast Guard with Travis McMichael and said he insulted her with crude sexual comments once he learned that she had dated a Black man, calling her, quote, "an N-word lover." Another woman testified that Greg McMichael went on an angry rant about Black people, saying they were just trouble and should all be dead, after she had made a comment to him regretting that civil rights activist Julian Bond had died.

Also in court today - some taped phone calls from Greg and Travis McMichael that they had made when they were in the Glynn County jail awaiting trial. In one conversation, Greg McMichael refers to the Ahmaud Arbery killing and said, quote, "no good deed goes unpunished." Now, this is in keeping with testimony earlier this week from investigators who had combed through the defendants' cell phones and their digital footprints and found instances of offensive racist comments and memes and, particularly from the McMichaels, posts that advocated violence against Black people and pretty much taking the law into their own hands.

KELLY: How did the defense counter this? What was their argument?

ELLIOTT: Well, it was really interesting. When it came time for the defense to present its case, there was not much of a case. None of the defendants testified. No witnesses were called by the lawyers for either Travis McMichael or Roddie Bryan.

The only one witness offered was from Greg McMichael's attorney, and it was a neighbor who testified about reading one of his posts on the Satilla Shores' Facebook page for their neighborhood, and he was talking about a suspicious person who appeared to be living under a nearby bridge. She later said she saw a white person under the bridge.

The lawyer then played a phone call that Greg McMichael had made to police, warning them about a, quote, "shady-looking fellow" under the bridge. Apparently, they were trying to make the case here that McMichael was this hyperprotective guy in the neighborhood and that he was looking out for people, no matter what color they were. The defense case here is that these men chased Ahmaud Arbery not because he was Black but because he was, quote, "the guy" that they had seen on surveillance video going into a home under construction without permission to be there.

But what was interesting was, you know, under examination from the prosecutors, you know, time and time again, law officers from the area emphasized that nothing had been ever taken from that home construction site. Ahmaud Arbery never was seen with a weapon or with anything in his hands - no backpack, nothing that would indicate that he had done anything wrong - and that there had been no major crimes reported in that neighborhood.

KELLY: Just about 30 seconds left, Debbie, but I have to ask - these men have already been sentenced to life in prison on a state murder conviction. How has this federal trial compared?

ELLIOTT: The racist language. You know, before, it was just a straight murder trial. This is all about motive. The question for the jury here is just because these men had racial animus in the past, is that enough to believe that race was the motivating factor behind this killing? We'll hear the closing arguments on Monday.

KELLY: On Monday. All right. NPR's Debbie Elliott, thank you.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF STS9'S "TOKYO") 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.