BRUNSWICK — The man accused of pulling the trigger in the death of Ahmaud Arbery took the stand Wednesday in his defense, calling the Feb 23, 2020 shooting death “the most traumatic experience” of his life.
Travis McMichael argued he killed Arbery in self-defense after he and his father, Greg McMichael were trying to perform a citizen’s arrest, adding he believed Arbery was responsible for burglaries in their neighborhood.
McMichael shed tears on the stand Wednesday as he described the fatal moment when he pulled the trigger on Arbery during a tussle over McMichael’s gun. He said he was thinking about his son during that moment.
“(Arbery) was on that shotgun. … I knew that I was losing this,” McMichael explained. “If I would’ve lost grip on the shotgun I would’ve been shot. I don’t know what mechanics he was doing to overpower me.”
The McMichaels and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan are charged with malice and felony murder, aggravated assault and other charges, accused of following and cornering Arbery throughout the Satilla Shores neighborhood.
Travis McMichael testified Wednesday that he was aware of several instances of someone entering autos that had occurred in the neighborhood in 2019. He, himself, had reported a gun stolen from his vehicle on Jan. 1, 2020.
He said he was also aware of burglaries that had occurred at a home under construction at 220 Satilla Drive. On Feb. 11, he called police to report a Black man running into that home. He told the 911 operator he was unsure if the man was armed, as he’d seen the man reach into his pocket before running into the home.
By the time police arrived the man could not be found. An officer on the scene showed the McMichaels and others on the scene the man seen on video surveillance from inside the home.
Travis McMichael recalled his father running into his home Feb. 23, 2020 telling him to grab his gun, because “the guy that had broken into the house down the street” was running down the street.
He grabbed his shotgun and ran outside. He saw a neighbor pointing in the direction toward Arbery.
Based on his Feb. 11 call to 911 and the neighbor pointing towards Arbery’s direction, Travis said he “had probable cause to believe something’s happened down there [near the under construction home].”
“Let’s try to hold him for the police and talk to him,” was Travis McMichael’s intent with Arbery, according to his testimony.
Under the impression his father had called 911, he said he and his father got into his truck and headed toward’s Arbery’s direction.
“I was trying to see if I recognized him. As we get closer, I recognize his hair cut and strides,” he said.
Travis McMichael testified that he was paralleling Arbery in his truck as Arbery was still running.
“Hey what are you doing? Whats going on?” Travis McMichael said he asked Arbery. “Stop for a minute. Stop, I want to talk to you.”
Arbery appeared to look angry and mad as he was running, Travis McMichael said. His teeth were clinched, which “made me think something’s happened,” he said.
Travis McMichael said he attempted to get Arbery to stop at least three times. At one point, he said he told Arbery police were on the way.
“As soon as I said police were on the way, he turned and ran,” Travis McMichael said.
After loosing Arbery at some point during the pursuit, Travis said he eventually came around the corner of a street where he saw a black truck–later identified as being Bryan’s— driving toward them. Travis testified it appeared to him that Arbery was attempting to get in that truck.
“My thought was why is he attacking the truck? Why is he hitting the truck?” Travis testified.
Previous interviews with law enforcement indicated Bryan had joined the pursuit after seeing Arbery run by his home with the McMichael’s truck following behind him.
During the final moments before the shooting, the McMichaels had their truck parked perpendicular to Holmes Street as Bryan is following behind Arbery in his truck.
Arbery ran in a direction towards the McMichaels truck. Travis, with his gun pointed downward, said he was “pretty sure” Arbery was going to attack him.
“I had the gun pointed down and when I raised it, he no longer went in my direction,” said Travis McMichael.
Arbery ran away from Travis to the other side of the truck. Travis said he thought Arbery could be running away, but he didn't know for sure and thought it could be possible Arbery was running to the other side of the truck to attack his father, who was standing in the bed of the truck also with a gun.
“I’m thinking he was going to run across the yard…I was going to let him go and watch him run on by because at that point, the police would be coming in and I can see which way he went,” Travis McMichael said.
But as Travis walked to the front of the car with his gun in the direction Arbery was running, Arbery turned toward him and the two get in a tussle over the gun, he said.
“He came around the corner so fast. He grabs the shotgun.” Travis said.
During the struggle, Travis said he remembers shooting Arbery but then said Arbery continued to fight. The second shot missed Arbery. With the third shot, Travis McMichael said Arbery “disengaged” and let go of the shotgun and continued to run. Arbery fell dead within a few steps, as seen on cellphone video recorded by Bryan.
Travis McMichael’s attorney, Jason Sheffield questioned, him about his law enforcement background, which he said was obtained in the U.S Coast Guard.
Travis went through his experience learning about probable cause, and learning how and when to deescalate various situations, and when to use his arrest powers.
“In your experience, can pointing a gun at someone deescalate a situation?” Sheffield asked Travis McMichael.
“Yes,” Travis responded, saying it can cause someone to “backoff.”
During cross-examination Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski attempted to discredit some of the statements Travis made regarding his Coast Guard training and experience.
“You learned as part of your time with the military you can’t force people to speak with you,” Dunikoski asked.
“That’s correct,” Travis responded.
“And if someone wants to walk away, you have to let them,” Dunikoski continued.
“Yes,” Travis said.
Travis McMichael is expected to continue testifying Wednesday.
It is unclear whether Bryan and Greg McMichael will testify.
Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, said during his opening statements Wednesday that Bryan was on his front porch minding his own business when Arbery ran by his house with the McMichaels followed behind.
Gough — who had elected to give his opening statements after the state had rested its case — said Bryan “acted instinctively” when got in his truck “unarmed” in attempt to help with what was taking place.
Unsure of why Arbery appeared to be fleeing, Gough said in the final minutes of the pursuit of Arbery, Bryan began recording Arbery in the event that he was able to get away, and so that police could identify him.
“If [Arbery was] feeling distressed, he could have reached out for help. From Bryan’s perspective, he’s seeing someone not ask for assistance,” said Gough. “He walks to the car with his cellphone and keys. This speaks volumes to his intentions.”
Prosecutors say Arbery was pursued for approximately five minutes throughout the Still Shores neighborhood.
The three men are also federally charged with federal hate crimes — interference with rights and attempted kidnapping, alleging that the trio used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.