Lawyers for the defendants began to present their case Wednesday after eight days of testimony from witnesses called by the prosecution. They have argued their clients were concerned about property crime and tried to perform a legitimate citizen’s arrest, with Travis McMichael ultimately firing at Arbery in self-defense. Choking up at times, the younger McMichael said he wanted to stop Arbery for the police and fired only when he believed the man was “overpowering” him in a struggle.
Jason Sheffield, who represents Travis McMichael, requested Wednesday that the judge prevent prosecutors from asking the accused if he uttered an expletive over Arbery’s body, apparently referencing Bryan’s statement to investigators that McMichael called Arbery the n-word and used a curse word. He also alluded to texts and social media posts that prosecutors put forward last year as evidence of racism and argued that because the defense did not make Travis McMichael’s “character” an issue, such information was not relevant.
The judge hasn’t ruled on the request, waiting for prosecutors to reveal their plans. They are arguing that McMichael has no claim to self-defense because the accused were the aggressors on Feb. 23, 2020, chasing an unarmed stranger for five minutes and confronting him with firearms. They also contend the accused had no grounds to detain Arbery, pointing to their comments to police expressing confusion about what exactly the man was doing in their neighborhood.
Expert witnesses from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation gave Travis McMichael’s self-defense argument a potential boost this week as they testified that Arbery was shot at very close range: “contact or near-contact,” as one put it. Travis McMichael testified that he raised his shotgun first to “de-escalate” and scare Arbery off, drawing on his use-of-force training while employed with the Coast Guard. But he said that as Arbery ran toward him and finally made physical contact, he fired, afraid the man would get control of the weapon.
He told police shortly after the shooting that he was not sure if Arbery actually grabbed the gun. But on Wednesday he projected new certainty and told the jury that he was rattled when he first spoke to authorities. The shooting was “the most traumatic experience in my life,” he said.
The now-infamous cellphone video shot by Bryan shows Arbery ahead of him, running down a suburban road toward Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael and their truck. Arbery heads around the vehicle toward the younger McMichael, who holds the shotgun, as Greg McMichael stands in the truck bed. A first shot rings out as the vehicle obscures the men. More shots are fired as they struggle in view.
Arbery’s killing went without arrests for more than two months until Bryan’s leaked cellphone video of the shooting sparked widespread outrage. President Biden and others likened it to a lynching, and Arbery’s death became one of many decried in nationwide protests against racism.
Now many see the trial as a matter of racial justice, and Travis McMichael’s testimony could lead prosecutors to more explicitly address race.
But prosecutor Linda Dunikoski, who will continue her cross-examination later, stuck Wednesday to other subjects. She pressed Travis McMichael on his knowledge of Arbery’s activities and area crime, suggesting at one point that he was responding to “rumor.” She noted that after an acquaintance’s purse was reportedly stolen, McMichael posted online that someone was “playing with fire on this side of the neighborhood.”
As Travis McMichael briefly left the witness stand before cross-examination, his mother gave a thumbs-up to her husband.
The younger McMichael testified that he and his neighbors in Satilla Shores were worried about break-ins and thefts leading up to Arbery’s killing. People installed cameras and shared information on Facebook, he said, recounting that a pistol was stolen last year from his truck.
The McMichaels said they recognized Arbery as the man filmed or seen entering an under-construction home several times in the months before the shooting. Arbery was not the only person who entered the property, and surveillance footage does not show him taking anything. But defense lawyers have said his repeated evening visits drew suspicion.
Travis McMichael testified that less than two weeks before the shooting, at around 7:30 p.m., he saw a man — Arbery — run into the vacant home and assumed he was armed after seeing the man reach toward his waistband or pocket. “It freaked me out,” he said. He called the police.
An officer told the McMichaels that Arbery never seemed to take anything from the vacant house and was “just in there plundering around,” according to earlier testimony.
But Travis McMichael said Wednesday that he heard about items missing from a boat on the property and thought Arbery was “going to steal some more stuff.”
He said he followed Arbery after his father spotted the man running in front of their home on Feb. 23, 2020. They did not know that Arbery had just been in the under-construction home, but Travis McMichael said he suspected another break-in when a neighbor waved in the running stranger’s direction.
He also said that for much of the chase he was under the impression someone already called the police; eventually he realized his mistake and dialed, he said. Dunikoski expressed skepticism, noting that he told police about urging his father to “call the cops” mid-pursuit.
Arbery did not speak, McMichael said, as he tried to catch up with the man and ask what he was doing. But he looked “angry,” McMichael said, and at one point took off running when told police were on the way.
Travis McMichael also emphasized that he did not know his co-defendant Bryan — and said he did not even notice the man sitting out on a porch as he drove by in pursuit of Arbery. He said he grew alarmed later to see Arbery “attacking” Bryan’s truck.
“This guy … seems dangerous to me, he’s trying to get in this vehicle,” Travis McMichael said.
Prosecutors have dismissed the idea that Arbery posed a threat and say that Bryan was the one threatening Arbery with his vehicle.
As Arbery approached in the moment captured on viral video, Travis McMichael said, he grew convinced that Arbery was going to attack.
He said he would have let Arbery run away, and that raising his shotgun to warn the man off seemed briefly like it would work.
But then “we were together, we were locked up, he was on that shotgun,” he said.
Kevin Gough, a lawyer for Bryan, also laid out his case Wednesday after opting to defer his opening statements to the close of the prosecution’s evidence. He noted that Bryan went into his house before joining the McMichaels’ chase but did not retrieve his rifle, arguing Bryan was not driving aggressively and did not seek to hurt Arbery.
A GBI agent who helped to reinvestigate the case after it drew national attention testified earlier that Bryan seemed to play down his involvement after the McMichaels were arrested. But Gough argued that Bryan was upfront and honest with police, offering key pieces of evidence that were ultimately used against him — his cellphone footage and surveillance video.
While prosecutors have accused Bryan and his co-defendants of assuming the worst about Arbery, Gough claimed that Arbery had in fact “assumed the worst about Mr. Bryan” because he did not call out to the defendant for help as the McMichaels chased him past Bryan’s front porch.
Bryan was not aware of the man filmed entering the under-construction home, witnesses have testified.
“I figured he had done something wrong,” Bryan told authorities when explaining that he wanted to slow Arbery down and photograph him. “I didn’t know for sure.”
The judge also rejected defense lawyers’ request to instruct the jury to acquit on all murder charges. All three defendants are charged as parties to malice murder — which requires intent to kill — and face several counts of felony murder, in which someone commits a felony that causes a person’s death.
Frank Hogue, an attorney for Greg McMichael, said the state had not shown a causal link between alleged felonies such as false imprisonment and Arbery’s death, arguing Arbery could have kept running.
“As we’ve all seen in the video, the shooting doesn’t occur until [Travis McMichael] and Ahmaud Arbery are locked up in mortal combat,” Hogue said.
Prosecutor Dunikoski responded that “but for” each of the crimes alleged, Arbery would be alive. She said each defendant made the crimes possible, trapping Arbery between their trucks.
Gough criticized Dunikoski’s “but for” reasoning and said his client could not foresee the chase would turn fatal.
“But for” Bryan’s mother giving birth to him, Gough said, “Roddie Bryan wouldn’t have been out there.”