ATLANTA — When Kevin Gough, a lawyer for one of the three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, said that the presence of the Rev. Al Sharpton in the courtroom this week had been “intimidating” to jurors — and then added, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here” — Mr. Sharpton, like many others, seemed equally offended and astonished.
“I’ve been through a lot of trials over the decades,” Mr. Sharpton, the 67-year-old civil rights veteran and TV personality, said in an interview with TMZ. “I’ve never had a lawyer ask that I not be able to come to court.”
Mr. Gough’s call on Thursday for Judge Timothy R. Walmsley to ban what Mr. Gough called “high-profile members of the African American community” from the Brunswick, Ga., courtroom has been widely condemned.
His statements also seem to fit a pattern of provocation from a lawyer who, both during this trial and long before, seems to thrive on it.
Last week, Mr. Gough tried to call for a mistrial in the case before opening statements. He sought to convince Judge Walmsley that it was unconstitutional to have jurors come to court on Veterans Day. And he tried unsuccessfully to have peaceful demonstrators — most of whom are calling for justice for Mr. Arbery — moved from the front lawn of the Glynn County Courthouse on grounds that they might “intimidate or influence the jury.”
Mr. Gough represents the defendant William Bryan, who goes by Roddie and is facing a possible life sentence for his role in trying to detain Mr. Arbery as he ran through the Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick in February 2020.
Outrage over Mr. Gough’s comments about Mr. Sharpton and other Black pastors spread quickly. “It says something that has been long part of the racist mind-set, that Blackness equals intimidation,” said the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, another civil rights leader who visited the courthouse this week.
On Friday morning, Mr. Gough issued an apology in court to “anyone who might have inadvertently been offended.” In a brief phone interview on Friday evening, he added: “I have nothing against Al Sharpton. But I don’t represent Al Sharpton. Not today, anyway. In this trial, I represent Roddie Bryan, and my duty is to ensure that Mr. Bryan receives a fair trial.”
Mr. Gough, 59, is a well-known presence in the small legal community of Brunswick, population 16,000, in contrast with the other two defendants’ lawyers, who hail from the larger metropolitan areas of Atlanta and Macon.
It is Mr. Gough’s demeanor that most closely resembles that of an aw-shucks country lawyer character from the movies, with a voice that honks and drawls and tends to ladle on the folksiness. On Thursday, as he called for — and then appeared to backpedal on — a ban on Black preachers in the courtroom, Mr. Gough wondered aloud what it would be like “if a bunch of folks came in here dressed like Colonel Sanders with white masks sitting in the back.”
But Mr. Gough’s presentation is, like so much about him, confounding, and sometimes contradictory. Though he attended law school at the University of Georgia, Mr. Gough grew up on Long Island. He spent a number of years heading up the Republican Party in Glynn County, Ga., and said he served for two years as legal director of a group called the Poor and Minority Justice Association. From 1989 to 1993, he served as a prosecutor in the local district attorney’s office. For four years starting in 2012, he represented the poorest defendants in his community as the Brunswick Judicial Circuit public defender.
He was fired from the public defender job for a number of reasons. Among them was the allegation that he fomented a culture of “fear and intimidation” in the office, according to statements during his appeals hearing from Bryan P. Tyson, who was then the executive director of the state public defender council.
Mr. Tyson, in a letter firing Mr. Gough, noted that a female employee in Mr. Gough’s office had accused him of retaliation after she had filed a sexual harassment complaint against another employee. The state public defender “credited her claim of retaliation,” Mr. Tyson wrote, and “took remedial action.”
Mr. Tyson also chided Mr. Gough for engaging in a “media campaign” that took aim at the Brunswick-area district attorney at the time, Jackie Johnson. Mr. Gough had publicly accused Ms. Johnson of failing to file cases in a timely manner, a move that he said wasted taxpayer money and impeded indigent clients’ right to a speedy trial.
Mr. Tyson said in his letter that Mr. Gough had also accused the district attorney of being too cozy with the local police, and said that Mr. Gough had complained that the Superior Court was being run “as a debtors’ prison,” issuing steep restitution and probation fees to the poor.
On Friday, Mr. Gough declined to comment on the firing. But at the time, his dismissal was fervently opposed by the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter.
Understand the Killing of Ahmaud Arbery
The shooting. On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed after being chased by three white men while jogging near his home on the outskirts of Brunswick, Ga. The slaying of Mr. Arbery was captured in a graphic video that was widely viewed by the public.
The victim. Mr. Arbery was a former high school football standout and an avid jogger. At the time of his death, he was living with his mother outside the small coastal city in Southern Georgia.
The suspects. Three white men — Gregory McMichael, 67, his 35-year-old son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — stand accused of murdering Mr. Arbery. They have also been indicted on federal hate crime charges. The men told authorities they suspected Mr. Arbery of committing a series of break-ins.
The fallout. The release of the video of the shooting sparked nationwide protests and prompted Georgia lawmakers to make significant changes to the state’s criminal law, including passage of the state’s first hate crimes statute.
The trial. With an unsettling video set to play a starring role in court, the case bears similarities to that of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer found guilty of murdering George Floyd. The trial is likely to address issues such as vigilantism and the role racism played in the three defendants’ actions.
The jury. After an extraordinarily long process, 12 jurors in the case were selected. The jury, which is made up of residents of Glynn County, where more than a quarter of the population is Black, only includes one Black person.
“Take the person who is most capable of defending the poor, the needy and the downtrodden and remove him from the office, what will they replace it with? With someone who will go about to get along,” the Rev. Dr. Leonard Small, an African American civil rights activist, said at that time in his defense of Mr. Gough, according to a TV news report.
Mr. Gough threatened to go on a hunger strike if a number of demands by the N.A.A.C.P. pertaining to the local justice system were not met.
Last year, Ms. Johnson was voted out of office amid criticism of her role in the Arbery case, in which his three pursuers walked free for weeks after the killing. This year, a grand jury indicted Ms. Johnson on the charges of obstruction of the police and violating her public oath, on grounds that she showed “favor and affection” to one of the defendants in the case, Gregory McMichael, who had formerly worked in her office as an investigator.
Long before the trial about Mr. Arbery’s death started, Mr. Gough raised eyebrows by appearing on CNN with his client, who had not yet been arrested, and intervening when the anchor, Chris Cuomo, tried to ask Mr. Bryan questions about the case.
“My client is a mechanic with a high school education, and if you’ve ever been to the high schools around here, that’s not necessarily saying much, OK?” Mr. Gough said.
Three days before Mr. Bryan’s arrest, Mr. Gough released a statement saying that his client, who had recorded the killing of Mr. Arbery on his phone, was merely a witness to the February 2020 shooting.
Mr. Gough even pleaded with two high-profile lawyers working with Mr. Arbery’s family, Ben Crump and S. Lee Merritt, to stop calling for Mr. Bryan to be charged, arguing that they had made Mr. Bryan a “sitting duck” for retaliatory attacks.
“Killing off the star witness for the prosecution will not help bring Ahmaud’s killers to justice,” he said.