The defense teams for the three White men accused in Ahmaud Arbery’s killing rested Thursday after presenting their case for two days and calling seven witnesses, including Travis McMichael, one of the defendants, to the stand.
Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. face charges including malice and felony murder in the death of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased by the trio on February 23, 2020, in the Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia. The younger McMichael shot and killed Arbery and it was captured on cell phone video by Bryan. All three defendants have pleaded not guilty.
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, after seeing the McMichaels chase Arbery, attempted to cut Arbery off, followed and recorded video of the pursuit and shooting.
Defense attorneys rested their case following the prosecution’s cross-examination of Travis McMichael as well as testimony from several residents in the neighborhood where the shooting took place.
Closing arguments will begin Monday morning.
Prosecutor pressed defendant about differences in his accounts
In Travis McMichael’s second day on the witness stand Thursday, a prosecutor pressed him about differences in his initial accounts to police and his later testimony about the pursuit and killing of Arbery.
She also probed him on the final moments of Arbery’s life — including asking why McMichael ever raised his shotgun.
“You’re not letting him run away — you’re pointing (the) shotgun at him,” prosecutor Linda Dunikowski said about the encounter during cross-examination.
“I am not letting him run to me, directly to me,” McMichael countered, talking of his raising his weapon.
McMichael had testified a day earlier that he acted in self-defense as he and Arbery wrestled over McMichael’s shotgun.
On Thursday, Dunikowski challenged McMichael over what she said were inconsistencies in his accounts. That included not telling police initially that he and his father were trying to make a citizen’s arrest, though that’s what the defense has since contended. She also covered differences in his accounts on when and where he told Arbery certain things, such as to stop.
McMichael responded he was “scattered” and “mixed up” in the hours after the shooting, because “this is the most traumatic event I’ve ever been through in my life.”
McMichael also acknowledged several times, under Dunikowski’s questioning, that he never saw Arbery armed during the pursuit, never heard Arbery verbally threaten him and that Arbery never responded or showed any interest in conversing with McMichael as he tried to ask what he was doing.
She also pushed him on what he chose not to do.
“You could have driven behind (Arbery) and not spoken to him at all,” and “you could have stayed in your truck” instead of getting out and eventually drawing a gun, Dunikowski said.
McMichael responded “yes” to both statements.
In addition to malice murder and felony murder, the defendants 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.
Prosecutor probes Travis McMichael on final encounter
On Thursday, Dunikowski also challenged Travis McMichael on why he now claims Arbery grabbed his gun in the final encounter, since he initially told police he didn’t know if that’s what happened.
“It’s obvious he had the gun. … I obviously missed every minute detail” when speaking to police that day under stress, McMichael testified Thursday.
On Tuesday, the forensic pathologist who performed Arbery’s autopsy testified that Arbery’s first gunshot wounds — to his wrist and chest — could be consistent with Arbery grabbing or pushing away the shotgun.
When McMichael described the encounter Wednesday, he said that after he and his father pursued Arbery in a pickup truck, he’d parked his vehicle and saw Arbery coming in their direction. He yelled at Arbery to “stop where you’re at” and went to grab his shotgun. Arbery turned and ran, before eventually coming back again, Travis McMichael said.
As Arbery got closer, Travis McMichael drew his weapon on Arbery, McMichael said Wednesday. Arbery darted to the right and later, “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, and Arbery “turns and is on me, is on me in a flash.”
“He grabs the shotgun, and I believe I was struck on that first instance that we made contact,” Travis McMichael testified Wednesday.
On Wednesday, McMichael said that “if he would have got the shotgun from me, then it was, this is a life-or-death situation. And I’m gonna have to stop him from doing this, so I shot.”
Dunikowski asked him Thursday about what she called his “attitudes toward … vigilantism.” She asked about a January 2019 Facebook exchange with somoene, in which that person felt that examples needed to be made out of somebody if they steal things.
“You (responded), ‘That’s right. Hope y’all catch the vermin,'” Dunikowski said.
“That’s correct,” McMichael said.
Travis McMichael describes days and moments leading to pursuit
The McMichaels, according to their attorneys, suspected Arbery of burglary in part because they and several neighbors were concerned about people entering an under-construction home — and because of Travis McMichaels’ encounter with a man in the neighborhood on February 11, 2020, nearly two weeks before the shooting.
Defense attorney Bob Rubin said in opening statements two weeks ago that the person that Travis McMichael saw on February 11, 2020, was Arbery — verified by surveillance video — and that the encounter gave Travis McMichael the belief 12 days later that the person now running could be armed.
According to testimony, the deadly pursuit started with this: A neighbor called police on the afternoon of February 23 to say a man later identified as Arbery was at the construction site alone. Arbery ran off as the man called police, the neighbor testified.
Gregory McMichael, investigators testified, said he initiated the pursuit after seeing Arbery speedily run by McMichael’s home, and that he believed Arbery matched the description of someone who’d been recorded at the construction site before.
On Wednesday, Travis McMichael testified that he was sitting in his home on February 23 when his father ran inside in a “frantic state” and told his son to get his gun, saying the man from days earlier had “just ran by the house” and “something’s happened.”
“I was under the assumption that it was the same individual that I saw (at the unfinished home) on the 11th,” and he had heard previously that things had been stolen from the site, Travis McMichael testified.
The prosecution has said surveillance videos do show Arbery at the construction site multiple times, including the day he was killed, but always without breaking in and without taking anything.
However, prosecution witnesses have testified that the McMichaels did not know for certain at the time of the chase that Arbery was at the site that day, or whether the man in the videos had ever taken anything from the construction site.
Travis McMichael said he grabbed his shotgun when his father beckoned him. As Travis and Gregory McMichael drove and encountered Arbery on February 23, they “identified that yes, this is him,” Travis McMichael testified Wednesday.
“(We decided) let’s try to hold him for the police to talk to him,” Travis McMichael testified. He said he his father told him he had called police, and so assumed police were on their way — but it turned out the father did not have his phone.
The son 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 and kept running. He testified he tried talking to Arbery a second time, during which Arbery stopped, did not say anything, but took off again after Travis McMichael said police were coming.
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. Arbery at one point seemed to be “grabbing” the other truck well before the final encounter, Travis McMichael testified.
Only late in the sequence, shortly before the shooting, did Travis McMichael realize that his father hadn’t called police. Travis McMichael dialed 911 and handed the phone to his father, he testified.
Arbery had no weapon when he was killed, authorities said.
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