Jury in Arbery Case to Decide Reasonableness of Shooting in Self-Defense, Citizen's Arrest

Jury deliberations in the case of Ahmaud Arbery's death began on Tuesday after a lengthy trial involving different defense attorneys for each of the three defendants and now, it will be up to the jurors to decide on the reasonableness of the actions of the three men who are accused of killing Arbery.

While the prosecution has argued that Arbery, who was Black, was gunned down and fatally shot on February 23, 2020 because of his race, the defendants have contended they acted in self-defense while executing a "citizen's arrest."

"Self-defense is a central issue in the case, at least based on the defendants' presentations and arguments," former federal prosecutor and former elected state attorney Michael McAuliffe told Newsweek.

"The evidence shows one of the defendants shot and killed Mr. Arbery," he said. "The real decision in the case is whether, despite committing the actions alleged, the defendants were legally justified in doing those acts––here killing Mr. Arbery."

In order for a self-defense argument to be successful, jurors would have to determine that the threat Arbery posed to the McMichaels and Bryan was enough to justify their actions in killing the 25-year-old.

During the trial, the defense argued that Arbery's attempts to confront Travis McMichael and potentially take his shotgun is enough to constitute an imminent and deadly threat.

"The issue of reasonableness is the common thread in the case. It touches everything about Arbery's death. The jury's mandate will be to assess the defendants' behavior and also Mr. Arbery's conduct," McAuliffe said.

"Reasonableness seems like a simple word, but it plays the most significant role in determining this case," he added.

Travis McMichael Ahmaud Arbery Self-Defense Citizen's Arrest
The jurors to decide on the reasonableness of the actions of the three men who are accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery. Above, defendant Travis McMichael observes court proceedings during the trial for Arbery's shooting death at the Glynn County Courthouse on November 8, in Brunswick, Georgia. Sean Rayford/Stringer

At the time of Arbery's death, citizen's arrests were permitted under Georgia law and allowed private citizens to arrest another without a warrant.

Under the former law, "a citizen could make an arrest for a felony offense committed in their presence, or for within their immediate knowledge. The belief that a crime occurred must be reasonable, not a mere speculation," criminal defense attorney Richard Lawson explained to Newsweek.

In their closing arguments, the defense claimed that Travis McMichael had seen Arbery in a house that had been under construction in the Satilla Shores neighborhood 12 days before the fatal altercation and argued that it was enough to constitute "immediate knowledge" of a burglary.

In her closing arguments, lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski argued to the court, "You can't do a citizen's arrest four days" after a crime has been committed.

If the prosecution can successfully argue that the defendants did not have reason to believe Arbery had committed a felony, the three men could be found guilty of false imprisonment—a charge each of the men face.

"If a person is detained without a reasonable belief that they have committed a felony offense, then it would still be false imprisonment," Lawson said. "The jury would make the determination as to what is reasonable, and as with all legal standards it cannot be the subjective view of the three accused defendants. What a reasonable person would do or believe is something the jury would decide."

Dunikoski, who carries the state's burden of proving that the defendants' self-defense is not the case, repeatedly instructed jurors about the legal concept of reasonableness during the trial.

"You can't start something and claim self-defense," Dunikoski told the jury on Tuesday. "And they started this."

"Do you really believe he had no other choice than to use his shotgun?" she asked.

Legal experts said the verdict in the case will ultimately come down to the jury's decision as to whether the defendants acted reasonably to the threat that Arbery allegedly posed that day.

"The issue is what a reasonable person would believe, not the subjective opinion(s) of the three accused on trial," Lawson said. "The jury will decide what is and what is not reasonable."

"We know the result of the confrontation––the shooting death of an unarmed person in the middle of a street. The jury has the advantage of video evidence that captured the shooting and some of the chase that led up to it," McAuliffe added. "However, the jury doesn't have the benefit of Mr. Arbery's thoughts. That is the tragedy of all homicide cases and potentially a challenge for the jurors."