BRUNSWICK, Ga. — One of the three men charged with murder in the death of Ahmaud Arbery began crying on the stand Wednesday as he described the final moments of his fatal confrontation with Arbery.
Travis McMichael, who was seen on video shooting and killing Arbery in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020, was the first witness for the defense. After about three hours of testimony, McMichael broke downas he described what he later called "the most traumatic experience of my life."
"It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he had gotten the shotgun from me, it was a life-or-death situation," McMichael said.
McMichael said he wanted to testify to share his "side of the story."
"I want to explain what happened and to be able to say what happened from the way I seen it," he said.
McMichael said his father Gregory, who is also facing murder charges in Arbery's death, was in a "frantic state" after spotting Arbery running in their neighborhood and identified him as "the same guy" that was previously seen entering a neighbor's home under construction.
He grabbed his shotgun and went outside, where he saw neighbor Matt Albenze point down the road. McMichael said he thought it was "reasonable" Albenze may have seen Arbery breaking in or stealing something.
“My father told me, ‘The guy, from the other night’," McMichael said. "I assumed he was correct, but I wanted to verify."
Asked during cross-examination if he told his father to calm down when he ran into the house, McMichael said no.
“If I walked outside and I didn’t see our neighbor that was aware of February 11th and knew that that the guy we’re suspecting has been in the house several times ran by was pointing down the road, then yes, I’ve had said, 'Dad, calm down.'"
“That led me to believe there’s probable cause that something has happened down there.”
McMichael said he assumed his father had called the police as they began to pursue Arbery.
Before he pulled up next to Arbery, McMichael said he recognized him based on his haircut. McMichael said he told Arbery to "please" stop as he pulled up next to him three times.
On cross-examination, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski suggested McMichael did not intend to arrest Arbery.
“Not once during your direct examination did you state that your intention was to effectuate an arrest of Mr. Arbery until your attorney asked you that leading question. Isn’t that right?” Dunikoski asked.
“Yes,” McMichael said.
Dunikoski asked if he learned from his time in the military that “you can’t force people to speak to you,” and McMichael answered, “That’s correct.”
“And if someone walks away, you have to let them walk away?” Dunikoski said.
“Yes,” McMichael said.
McMichael described Arbery as looking "very angry."
"I have some suspicions he may be armed, may act armed," he said. "I'm trying to deescalate. I know this can be – this can go any way."
During his testimony, McMichael said he told Arbery the police were on the way, prompting Arbery to turn and run. He said that is what made him think Arbery "might have been caught in that house again and he’s... trying to evade being stopped by police."
As his father climbed into the back of the pickup truck, McMichael put his shotgun on the seat. At this point, McMichael said he saw Arbery interacting with a black pickup truck, which he later learned belonged to William "Roddie" Bryan, the other defendant in the case.
"One of my thoughts is I might hear a gunshot here," he said.
McMichael said Arbery continued running and he continued driving because he wanted to determine where Arbery was going and tell police. He said he saw Arbery and Bryan's truck coming into his lane.
"It looks like he was trying to get in the door," McMichael said. "My thought was 'Why is he attacking a truck?'"
McMichael said he then lost sight of Arbery and Bryan's truck, parked his vehicle near his home and got out. Then, he saw Arbery coming toward him "like a running back."
McMichael said he repeatedly told Arbery to stop. When he reached into his truck to grab his shotgun, Arbery turned and ran away. McMichael said he grabbed his phone, called 911 and then saw Arbery running toward him again.
"I'm pretty sure he is going to attack," McMichael said, adding that he knew he needed to raise his shotgun to deter him "from training."
McMichael told defense attorney Jason Sheffield he would have let Arbery continue running if he had turned away from him. McMichael said Arbery began running back toward the truck and he worried Arbery might attack his father.
McMichael said Arbery grabbed the shotgun and struck him. He got emotional as he told jurors he was thinking about his son in the moments before firing the first shot.
"I knew that he was on me, I knew that I was losing this," McMichael said. "I knew that he was overpowering me."
McMichael said during cross-examination that he stored his shotguns with the safety on and the action bar lock down, meaning he needed to take the safety off and push the action bar lock up to fire a shot.
“When he was on top of me, I disengaged the safety and pulled the trigger,” McMichael said
McMichael said he initially believed he shot Arbery twice but later learned he fired three shots. The medical examiner who performed Arbery's autopsy said just two shots struck Arbery.
"He was all over me, he was all over that shotgun, so I shot again to stop him," he said. "That final shot he disengaged, and at that point he let go and turned and continue to run."
After the shooting, McMichael said the police arrived and he put his shotgun down.
"After that it was all a blur," McMichael said, breaking into tears.
Travis McMichael testifies about neighborhood crime, Coast Guard training
McMichael told defense attorneys he moved into the neighborhood in 2018 and grew concerned about car break-ins, "suspicious persons" and the theft of his pistol. McMichael said he would often discuss crime with neighbors, some of whom began installing surveillance cameras on their houses, and his family, including father Greg McMichael.
“It was a common occurrence at that point," he said. “It was concerning that nothing was done… concerning that you have to have that constant presence.”
McMichael detailed his attempt to find out who was responsible and said surveillance video at neighbor Larry English's home led him to believe the same person or people was repeatedly entering the property under construction and that items had been stolen.
On Feb. 11, McMichael said he saw a man "lurking" outside English's home. He said the man reached into his pants, leading McMichael to assume he was armed, then ran inside the vacant home.
"It freaked me out," he said, adding that he told his father and then called police. "I'm not going to chase someone who may be armed."
Asked if he had “incomplete information” about who was committing crimes in Satilla Shores during cross-examination, McMichael said “yes.”
“I did make assumptions at that point until February 11th, when I saw what I saw that evening,” McMichael said.
The McMichaels' attorneys have argued that Satilla Shores was a neighborhood "on edge" prior to Arbery's killing. They said in their opening statements Nov. 5 that the McMichaels chased Arbery in their pickup truck to detain him for police because they believed he was responsible for break-ins and that Travis McMichael shot him in self-defense.
McMichael also testified about the training he received in the U.S. Coast Guard, describing six levels on the use-of-force continuum. He was a mechanic in the Coast Guard, did search and rescue work and sometimes worked with local law enforcement between 2007 and 2016.
McMichael's attorneys have argued that he had probable cause to suspect Arbery was a burglar and believed he was justified in firing his weapon in part because of his Coast Guard training.
William 'Roddie' Bryan 'did not intend to harm Mr. Arbery,' attorney says
In his opening statement earlier Wednesday, defense attorney Kevin Gough told jurors that evidence will show his client did not intend to hurt Ahmaud Arbery the day he was killed.
Gough said that while William "Roddie" Bryan has admitted to trying to block Arbery's path, there is no physical evidence from the road where Arbery was killed to suggest Bryan was driving aggressively or attempting to assault him with his truck.
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"The evidence will show Mr. Bryan did not intend to harm Mr. Arbery," Gough said. "He regretted Mr. Arbery being injured."
Gough began his opening statement by trying to separate his client from his co-defendants. All three defendants were arrested and charged with murder and other crimes two months after Arbery was killed when cellphone video of the shooting taken by Bryan was released.
He said that Arbery did not call out to Bryan for help as he was being chased by the McMichaels despite the fact that Bryan's home looked like "something out of a Norman Rockwell painting."
Gough also told the jury that Bryan did not arm himself before getting into his pickup truck and pursuing Arbery. He said Bryan followed Arbery to document his path for the police.
Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Jason Secrist testified Friday that Bryan "minimized" his involvement in the events leading up to Arbery's death by changing "the descriptive words" he used between an initial interview with Glynn County Police and an interview with Secrist months later.
Gough said Wednesday that if Bryan wanted to minimize his involvement, he would have gotten rid of his cellphone and the video, which he called "key evidence in the case."
"Mr. Bryan is the reason we have that evidence," he said.
Gough's opening statement came a day after the state rested its case. Prosecutors called 23 witnesses over eight days to support their argument that Arbery was attacked by men who had no way of knowing if he had committed a crime.