Travis McMichael, one of three men charged with murder in 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery’s death, testified Wednesday he shot the Black jogger in self-defense, saying Arbery attacked him and grabbed his shotgun.
McMichael testified about the moments that led up to the shooting, saying he believed he recognized Arbery from an encounter days earlier at a nearby home under construction.
“I want to give my side of the story,” the defendant testified, saying later he came to be in a “life or death situation” with Arbery on the day of the shooting.
Travis McMichael was the first witness called as the defense began its case at the trial.
Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, all of whom are White, face charges including malice and felony murder in the death of Arbery, who was chased by the trio in vehicles and shot and killed by the younger McMichael in February 2020 near Brunswick, Georgia.
Arbery’s family has said he was out for a jog when he was shot and killed. Defense attorneys contend the McMichaels, suspecting him of burglary, were trying to conduct a lawful citizen’s arrest, and that Bryan cut him off and recorded video of the pursuit and shooting. The defense also contends Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense as they wrestled over the former’s shotgun.
Early in the testimony, McMichael spoke about what he said was a rising level of crime, including vehicle break-ins, in the southeast Georgia neighborhood where he lived with his parents in the 18 months leading up to Arbery’s killing there.
Travis McMichael testified that on the evening of February 11, 2020 – nearly two weeks before Arbery’s shooting – he saw someone “creeping through the shadows” in their neighborhood and got out of his vehicle to ask what was happening.
He testified the person, who he later described to police as a Black male, “pulls up his shirt” and went for his “pocket, waistband area.” Travis McMichael said he assumed the person was armed, so he jumped back into his vehicle and the person ran to the house under construction.
He testified he went back to his house, where he told his father what happened. The two went back to the house under construction and called authorities. Police never saw, talked to or caught the person Travis McMichael said he saw that night, he testified.
‘He was attacking me’
McMichael testified that on February 23, 2020, he was in his living room when his father came in and said, “the guy that has been breaking in down the road just ran by the house, something’s happened.”
“I was under assumption that it was the same individual that I saw on the 11th,” Travis McMichael testified, adding his father told him to grab his gun. He said that when he got out of the house, he also saw a neighbor pointing down the road.
During cross-examination from the prosecution later in the day, Travis McMichael said his goal when he went out on February 23 was to “find out, to verify if it was the same individual I saw on the 11th.”
The father and son eventually got into their truck and Travis McMichael asked his father if he called the police, to which Greg McMichael responded, “yes, yes,” but the son later found out his father did not have his phone on him, he testified.
“I recognize … it is the same guy that I saw from the 11th.” He testified he tried to ask Arbery while still in his truck what was going on, “trying to deescalate” the situation. He said Arbery did not respond, kept running and “he looks very angry.”
He testified he tried talking to Arbery a second time, during which Arbery stopped, did not say anything, stood but took off again after Travis McMichael said police were on their way.
Eventually, Travis McMichael said he noticed another truck in the neighborhood. Prosecutors contend Bryan, the third defendant, got in his own truck and joined the pursuit, though he did not know what was going on, and struck Arbery with his vehicle.
Travis McMichael testified about the path they took in their vehicle through the neighborhood, adding that he saw Arbery at one point seemingly “grabbing” the other truck.
Eventually, Travis McMichael said he parked his vehicle and saw Arbery coming in their direction and yelled at Arbery to “stop where you’re at” and went to grab for his shotgun. At that point, Travis McMichael said Arbery turned and ran back, before eventually coming back again.
As Arbery got closer, Travis McMichael said, he drew his weapon on the jogger. Arbery darted to the right and later, “straightens up and starts running back straight to the truck where my father’s at the back of it.” The younger McMichael testified he made his way to the front of the vehicle, which is where he first made contact with Arbery, who he said grabbed the shotgun and struck him.
“I shot him,” Travis McMichael testified. “He had my gun, he struck me, it was obvious … that he was attacking me, that if he would have gotten the shotgun from me, then it was a life or death situation.”
He testified he thought he shot Arbery twice before later realizing it was three shots when talking to investigators. Travis McMichael testified he shot him again after the initial time because “I was still fighting.” After the final shot, Travis McMichael said Arbery let go.
“I turned around, we got over there and pulled (Arbery’s) hand under him and realized he was deceased,” he said.
The defense began its case Wednesday, a day after the prosecution rested their eight-day case. The state will resume cross-examination of Travis McMichael on Thursday morning. Defense attorney Jason Sheffield has said he expects the defense to call 30 witnesses.
Speaking from the courthouse steps Wednesday evening, Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, said she appreciated Travis McMichael’s testimony because “it gave my family and I some insight on what he was actually thinking.”
“Mr. Travis McMichael killed my son all on assumptions,” she said. “He had no real facts or where Ahmaud was coming from, what Ahmaud had done. He just took actions into his own hands.”
She added, “He didn’t have any facts on hand when he chose to pull the trigger. Not one time, but three times.”
Defense attorney: No evidence Bryan tried to harm Arbery
Before Travis McMichael’s testimony, an attorney for Bryan gave a long-delayed opening statement – arguing there’s no evidence Bryan tried, or intended, to harm Arbery.
Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, had chosen to delay his own opening statement until the prosecution rested. Attorneys for the other defendants gave opening statements at the start of trial.
On Wednesday, Gough said evidence – including neighborhood surveillance videos – will show that Bryan joined the pursuit with no intent to harm Arbery, and that he did not try to assault Arbery with his vehicle, and generally is not culpable in his death.
“(Evidence shows Bryan) had no intent to strike or injure Mr. Arbery,” Gough told jurors.
Gough pointed to the surveillance video showing Bryan on his front porch when he notices Arbery running by, with the McMichaels chasing. Bryan calmly walked inside his home and retrieved his cell phone and vehicle keys – not his rifle, which he left behind, Gough said.
“That speak volumes” about Bryan’s intentions, Gough said.
Gough also tried to counter claims that Bryan, after getting in his truck and venturing out, tried to run Arbery over with the vehicle. He again pointed, in part, to surveillance video of Bryan’s truck coming out of his driveway.
At that point, there is no evidence to suggest that Bryan did anything coming out of his driveway but “creep out of his driveway to try to cut off Mr. Arbery,” Gough said.
Bryan, he said, cooperated with law enforcement immediately after the shooting – including by turning over the cell phone video he recorded of the pursuit and shooting.
Charges were not filed against the men for months until the cell phone footage of the shooting was made public, spurring national outrage and protests.
In addition to malice and felony murder, the defendants also face charges of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony. All have pleaded not guilty. If convicted, each man could face life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Contentious objections from defense over Black pastors’ attendance
Race has played a role both inside and outside the courtroom, not only regarding those on trial – the three defendants are White while Arbery was Black – but in the proceedings surrounding the trial, with defense attorneys objecting to Black pastors sitting in the gallery.
Following a long and contentious jury selection process, Judge Timothy Walmsley said the defense had appeared to be discriminatory in selecting the jurors but allowed the case to go forward – with only one Black member on the 12-person panel.
Attention at times during the trial also focused on an area distinctly out of the ordinary from many murder trials: the public gallery.
Before Gough started his opening statement Wednesday, he again objected to the presence in the gallery of the civil rights leader the Rev. Jesse Jackson, asking the judge to declare a mistrial.
The judge denied the motion.
Jackson attended court during parts of this week after Gough objected to the presence in court of civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton in court last week. Gough said last week “we don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here” to potentially influence the jury, and later apologized.
Gough’s string of complaints began last week after Sharpton joined Arbery’s parents and held their hands to pray together during a break in court proceedings. Gough objected again Monday, when Jackson made his first appearance in the gallery of the courtroom in support of the Arbery family.
Gough on Tuesday filed a motion asking the court to keep a record of who appears in the courtroom. He also asked the court to “take proactive measures” to make sure the presence of people in the gallery do not violate his client’s rights. The judge also denied those motions.
Jackson has said he plans to attend court proceedings throughout the week in support of Arbery’s family, and Sharpton has called for a march and rally outside the courthouse Thursday.
The confrontation between Arbery and the McMichaels came minutes after a neighbor called police to say a man later identified as Arbery was at the construction site alone that afternoon. Gregory McMichael, investigators testified, said he initiated the pursuit after seeing Arbery run speedily by McMichael’s home, and he believed Arbery matched the description of someone who’d been recorded at the construction site before.
The prosecution has said videos do show Arbery at the site multiple times, including the day he was killed, but always without breaking in and without incident.
However, prosecution witnesses have testified McMichael did not know at the time of the chase that Arbery was at the site that day, or whether the man in the surveillance videos had ever taken anything from the construction site.
The owner of the unfinished home, Larry English Jr., testified in a September deposition – played for jurors last week – that he “probably” had told the McMichaels about incidents on his property but said he never authorized them to confront anybody on the site.
Jurors heard last week the 911 call Travis McMichael made on February 11, 2020, to report a suspicious individual inside English’s unfinished home in the neighborhood and said the person “reached into his pocket” and was “acting like he was” armed.
Defense attorney Bob Rubin said in opening statements two weeks ago that the person that McMichael saw on February 11 was Arbery, and this gave Travis McMichael the belief Arbery could be armed, Rubin said.
Arbery had no weapon when he was killed, authorities said.
CNN’s Travis Caldwell, Jason Morris, Pamela Kirkland and Delano Massey contributed to this report.