BRUNSWICK, Georgia. – The lawyer was from another city, a prosecutor, spent most of her career in a large liberal city, and she was invited to try the biggest case in her career: the murder of a black man. a man on a sunny afternoon by three white men near a small town nestled against the coastline of southern Georgia.
Despite the evidence of racism at her disposal, Attorney Linda Dunikoski stunned some legal observers by largely avoiding race during the trial, opting instead to go into detail about how the three men had persecuted the black Ahmaud Arbury. through their surroundings.
The risks went beyond her career and her only challenge. Failure to find guilty in what many have considered to be an obvious act of racial violence will reach far beyond Glynn County, Georgia. For some, it would be a referendum on a country that, last summer, seemed to take tentative steps to tackle racism, only to spill over into deeper divisions.
Dunikoski’s strategy was confirmed Wednesday when a jury found three men guilty of murder and other charges after about a day’s discussion. Convicted – Gregory McMichael, 65; his son Travis McMichael, 35; and their 52-year-old neighbor William Brian – sentenced to life in prison. They are also facing trial in February on separate federal hate crime charges.
Kevin Gough, the lawyer who represented Brian, believed that Dunikoski had done the hardest of the needles. In her closing argument, she mentioned racial motive only once during a three-week trial: the men, she said, attacked Arbury “because he was a black man running down the street.”
“She found a clever way to raise an issue that wouldn’t be offensive to the right-wing jury,” he said. “I think from the verdict it is clear that Dunikoski made the right choice.”
At that time, a number of legal experts considered Dunikoski’s strategy risky. But many in Brunswick thought she had proven her tone savvy in the Deep South community, where they said race did not require explicit mention for everyone to understand the implications.
Cedric King, a black local businessman, said the evidence against the defendants, in particular the footage of Arbury’s murder, is compelling enough to stand on his own.
“Anyone with warm blood in their veins, who witnessed this video and knew the context of what was happening, knew it was wrong,” King said.
From the beginning, the case reflected the painful themes of the Deep South. The murder of a black man by white men with guns, presented by a jury of only one black man. The rest were white. The jury was formed in response to the protests of Dunikoski, who unsuccessfully tried to prevent the removal of potential black jurors during the selection process by defense attorneys. It was also a painful moment for Glynn County, the white-majority county that largely voted for Donald Trump in 2020 and remains a marked legacy of segregation.
His county administration, Brunswick, earned praise decades ago for the way its black and white leaders worked together to bring schools and community agencies together. But the selection of such a racially one-sided jury has sparked anger and mistrust in a district where more than 1 in 4 residents are black. Brunswick is adjacent to four barrier islands known as the Golden Isles, a popular tourist destination that is also home to some of the country’s richest people.
Before her trial, Dunikoski, 54, who declined to be interviewed, has spent her career primarily in the Atlanta metropolitan area, earning a reputation as a tough prosecutor for murderers, gang members and sex offenders. By the end of the trial, she had won the trust of the Arbury family so much that they called her Aunt Linda.
Things took a twisty path before landing on Dunikoski’s lap. The case was initially reviewed by two local district attorneys’ offices, but in the end, both withdrew from it, citing a conflict of interest; one of the former prosecutors, Jackie Johnson, was charged in connection with the case. It was held in the hands of the District Attorney’s third office and then transferred to the more resource-rich Cobb County, where Dunikoski has worked since 2019.
Prior to joining the Cobb County office, Dunikoski served for over 17 years as an attorney in Fulton County, where one of the most high-profile cases was the trial of a group of Atlanta public school teachers who were convicted in 2015 of racketeering and other crimes. fees for changing student standardized test scores. Critics said prosecutors had offered a group of predominantly black teachers as the scapegoats for the school district, which had much deeper systemic problems.
In 2009, according to the Associated Press, Dunikoski was jailed by a judge for failing to pay a $ 100 fine after a judge pleaded contempt for her. At the time, the chief district attorney reportedly got into a scuffle with the judge, claiming that he unfairly damaged the reputation of an honest lawyer.
Observers said Dunikoski succeeded in the Arbury murder trial, setting the tone for the complex case.
She presented her version to the jury in a style that was at times prosaic and at times intimate and conversational, like a stern high school principal who sometimes invites students to catch a glimpse of themselves unattended. At some points, she flexed her body in exaggerated matador poses, describing how, in her opinion, Arbury was trying to defend himself at the moment of the shot.
She led the jury through many detailed legal questions, opposing the defense argument that the three white men lawfully persecuted Arbury under the state arrest law, which has since been largely gutted. And she sought to disprove the idea that the man who pulled the trigger, Travis McMichael, did it in self-defense.
In her rebuttal of the final defense argument – the last word before the jury was sent to decide the fate of the three men – Dunikoski appealed to common sense by proposing a general rule of life that she said the defendants violated: “Don’t look for trouble.”
She had already told them that Arbury was killed because he was Black. Now she told them that it was not a matter of whether the men were “good or bad people.” Rather, she said, it was “about holding people accountable and accountable for their actions.”
On Wednesday, as the jury debated, Arbury’s aunt, Teavanza Brooks, worried that they did not have a T-shirt for Dunikoski named Arbury. When Dunikoski briefly entered the courthouse room where family members were watching the video of the trial, another aunt shouted, “Linda, girl, you killed her!”
Shortly after the verdict was passed on Wednesday in front of the Glynn County Courthouse, Dunikoski was hailed as a hero by the crowd. At the mention of her name, they shouted, “Thank you, Linda!” Charlie Bailey, the Democratic candidate for attorney general for Georgia, responded to the verdict by texting his friends “Amen.”
“Not too long ago in Georgia, three whites could have killed a black man, and they didn’t have a very good chance of being prosecuted by an all-white jury,” said Bailey, who is white and worked with Dunikoski at the Fulton County attorney’s office. “I am proud of where I come from, but in part I do not ignore the sins of our ancestors and where it leads us today.”
Shortly after the sentencing, Dunikoski addressed the excited and relieved crowd outside the courthouse, with Arbury’s parents at her side. Her tone was direct again. “Today’s verdict was a fact-based verdict based on evidence,” she said. “And that was our goal – to bring this to the jury so that they can do the right thing.”