Travis McMichael says in his murder trial that he felt threatened by Ahmaud Arbery
Updated November 17, 2021 at 7:00 PM ET
Travis McMichael took the witness stand Wednesday in his murder trial over the February 2020 killing of Ahmaud Arbery, as the defense launched its phase of the trial. The prosecutionrested its case on Tuesday.
"I want to give my side of the story," McMichael said, telling the court that he wanted to explain what happened from his point of view. He is one of three defendants.
Under questioning by his attorney, McMichael said his training from his Coast Guard service included de-escalation techniques — and concepts around the use of force.
"In your experience, can pointing a gun at somebody de-escalate a situation?" his defense attorney, Jason Sheffield, asked.
"Yes," McMichael answered.
"If you pull a weapon on someone, from what I've learned in my training, usually that caused people to back off or to realize what's happening" and comply with orders, McMichael said.
First up: discussing crime in Satilla Shores
In response to the first question from Sheffield, McMichael affirmed that he's aware he isn't required to testify in his defense. Sheffield then asked him about the Satilla Shores neighborhood where he lives and where McMichael and his father, Gregory, chased Arbery in a pickup before Travis McMichael shot him with a shotgun.
McMichael described the neighborhood as friendly — but he added that he would hear of thefts and other crimes every couple of months. His own car was broken into numerous times, he said.
"It got to the point where I would just leave the thing unlocked," McMichael said.
With these questions, the defense is seeking to bolster its depiction of Satilla Shores as a neighborhood "under attack," beset by a stream of crimes.
By early 2019, McMichael said, it became common for neighbors to compare stories of cars being broken into, either in person or on a neighborhood watch Facebook page. He and his relatives often reminded one another to lock their doors, he added.
In cross-examination, McMichael told prosecutor Linda Dunikoski that he'd heard about such crimes through Facebook and from his mother.
"So it's fair to say you had incomplete information about who was committing the crime in Satilla Shores?" Dunikoski asked.
"Yes," McMichael replied.
McMichael discussed his use-of-force training in the Coast Guard
Sheffield asked Travis McMichael about his stint in the Coast Guard, a time when McMichael said his main job was as a mechanic — but his duties also included law enforcement and search-and-rescue operations, he said.
McMichael described being trained as a boarding officer at the Maritime Law Enforcement Academy, adding that the role gave him arrest powers in the Coast Guard.
His attorney then asked McMichael about his training in the use of force, including the "use of force continuum," ranging from the first level, such as an officer showing their presence, to the sixth level, "deadly force."
McMichael said that while he had frequently used the methods in the lower steps of the use of force continuum, he never used a baton or employed deadly force while in the service.
He also spoke about how drawing a weapon can sometimes deescalate a situation, particularly if it's pointed at "anybody that is causing the threat — or that may be the threat at that time."
Before the trial began, defense attorneys had planned to put law enforcement experts on the stand to testify about concepts such as the use of force and probable cause. But prosecutors successfully moved to prevent that, saying such testimony was irrelevant because the McMichaels and their neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan, weren't acting as law enforcement officers when they pursued Arbery.
In granting the state's motion, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley cited a precedent that established jurors can take the same set of factors as an expert would consider and make an "equally intelligent judgment of their own."
McMichael said he has previously displayed a gun to protect himself
Over the prosecutor's objection, McMichael discussed two instances in which he displayed or pulled a gun to protect himself, outside of his Coast Guard duties. The state had said those events weren't relevant to the current case; the judge allowed the questioning, saying the prosecution could take it up in its cross-examination.
McMichael said both of the instances occurred when he was living in Pascagoula, Miss., the first in 2008.
In the first example, McMichael said two men — both of whom he later identified as Black during cross-examination — tried to take his money while he was using an ATM. He had a conceal-carry permit for a gun, he said, and when he lifted his shirt to show the men his pistol, they fled the scene.
The second example dates from 2011, when McMichael said a man barged into his pickup while he was stopped at a red light. In that instance, he said, he drew his pistol from a holster and ordered the man to leave him alone.
McMichael describes fatally shooting Arbery
In direct examination, McMichael described what happened in the moments before he shot and killed Arbery.
McMichael said he was at home with family on Feb. 23 when his father came into the room and told him the man they believed had been breaking into houses in their neighborhood was back.
McMichael grabbed his shotgun and got into his truck with his father, Gregory, in the passenger seat. Although they didn't know Arbery's name at the time, they were looking for him.
When McMichael caught up with Arbery, he said he drove beside him and asked him to "please stop" but that Arbery didn't stop or speak to him.
"I'm trying to keep this as non-volatile as possible. I'm not screaming at the guy. I'm just trying to figure out what's happening," McMichael recounted. "At this point he's still running, but I notice he looks very angry."
McMichael continues to pursue Arbery, he said. At one point, McMichael said, he told Arbery the police were coming because he believed his father had called them, which he said caused Arbery to run off.
McMichael also said he saw Arbery running alongside a black truck, which was later understood to be the one being driven by William "Roddie" Bryan, the third co-defendant in the case.
With his father in the the truck, McMichael eventually parked. That's when he saw Arbery running toward him, and McMichael said he raised his shotgun to deter Arbery, who ran toward the other side of the truck.
McMichael said Arbery then started to run back toward the truck and, worried that Arbery was going to harm his father, McMichael ran toward him. That's when the two began to fight.
"He had my gun. He struck me," McMichael said, choking up as he described the shooting. "It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would've got the shotgun from me, then it was a life or death situation. And I'm gonna have to stop him from doing this, so I shot."
McMichael said he felt that Arbery was overpowering him and he had to use lethal force.
In cross-examination, McMichael told the state prosecutor that his intention that day was to help police to identify a man who had been seen breaking into a neighbor's house.
Asked if his dad had said that he'd seen Arbery breaking into the house, McMichael responded, "No."
Prosecutor Dunikoski provided McMichael a transcript of his interview with police that took place shortly after Arbery was shot. It read that he had said that he told his father to call the police upon spotting Arbery running.
McMichael said he doesn't clearly remember what he told police during that interview.
"This was two hours after the most traumatic experience of my life," he said.
Cross-examination of McMichael will resume on Thursday morning.
What are the charges McMichael faces?
A grand jury indicted Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan on nine criminal counts in Georgia state court, including felony murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.
The June 2020 indictment accuses the men of using their pickup trucks to chase and assault Arbery before killing him with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Who are the defendants in the case?
Gregory McMichael, 65, worked in law enforcement for decades, including a long stint as an investigator for the district attorney's office in Brunswick. After spotting Arbery, McMichael later told police, he grabbed his .357 Magnum pistol and told his son, "Travis, the guy is running down the street. Let's go."
Travis McMichael, 35, shot and killed Arbery with a 12-gauge shotgun after chasing him in his Ford F-150 pickup. He is a former member of the Coast Guard.
William "Roddie" Bryan, 52, is the neighbor who jumped into his Chevrolet Silverado pickup to help chase Arbery. He used his cellphone to record video of the final moments of the confrontation.
Ten weeks passed between Arbery's death and the first arrests in the case, after a video of the killing became public.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.