The man who fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery testified on Wednesday that he feared the 25-year-old Black man was armed with a gun when he encountered Arbery “creeping” outside an unfinished house in his Georgia neighbourhood 12 days before the shooting.
Travis McMichael’s testimony came as defence lawyers in the murder trial for the three white men charged with chasing and killing Arbery opened their case by building on arguments that their clients were lawfully trying to stop burglaries in their neighbourhood.
“I want to give my side of the story,” McMichael, 35, said.
‘Under the assumption he’s armed’
He said he first ran into Arbery at the house under construction on Feb. 11, 2020. McMichael said he was driving when he saw a man “lurking” and “creeping” outside the home. He turned his vehicle to point his headlights on Arbery, he said, and the man tried to hide behind a portable toilet at the construction site.
“He comes out and pulls up his shirt and goes to reach in his pocket or waistband area,” McMichael testified.
“It freaked me out,” said McMichael, who then went home and called 911. “Once I realized what’s going on, he’s doing this, I’m under the assumption he’s armed. I jumped back into the vehicle and he runs into the house.”
On Feb. 23, 2020, Travis McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael, armed themselves and jumped in a pickup truck to pursue Arbery after he ran past their home from the unfinished house. A neighbour, William ‘Roddie’ Bryan, joined the chase in his own truck, telling police that he tried to run Arbery off the road and then recorded cellphone video as Travis McMichael fired three shotgun blasts before Arbery fell facedown in the street.
Travis McMichael began testifying after Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley denied renewed requests by the defence for a mistrial and a directed verdict acquitting all three defendants on murder charges.
The prosecution concluded its case on Tuesday after eight days of testimony from 23 witnesses.
Judge allows high-profile visitors
Walmsley also denied a request from defence lawyers to ban prominent civil rights leaders and other high-profile visitors from the courtroom and require instead that they view the trial on a video screen in another room that has been set up for additional spectators as part of COVID-19 precautions.
Rev. Jesse Jackson sat with Arbery’s parents in the back row of the courtroom on Wednesday for the second time this week. Lawyers for the defendants have said Jackson’s presence and that of others who have spoken out in support of convictions in the case could unfairly influence the jury.
“They represent part of a national conversation” on racial injustice that has advocated for “conviction of the defendants,” said Jason Sheffield, a lawyer for Travis McMichael. “And for that reason, I do not think they should be present in the courtroom.”
In an interview outside the courthouse, Jackson said that by bringing up the issue of his attendance and that of other Black pastors who have supported the Arberys, the defence lawyers are “looking for a diversion.”
“They don’t want a trial,” he said. “They want a mistrial.”
The trial is taking place before a disproportionately white jury at the Glynn County courthouse in the port city of Brunswick.
Bryan’s lawyer, Kevin Gough, argued on Wednesday that Bryan never intended to harm Arbery and never tried to hide his involvement in the pursuit. He noted that his client openly shared his cellphone video — the key piece of evidence in the case — with police officers at the scene.
Gough suggested that Arbery was up to no good.
“When Mr. Arbery passes Mr. Bryan’s house, with all due respect, we know why,” he said. “And I think we can all discern that from the evidence.”
Arbery, 25, had enrolled at a technical college and was preparing to study to become an electrician like his uncles when he was killed.
The McMichaels told police they suspected Arbery was a burglar because security cameras had recorded him several times in the unfinished house on their street. Defence lawyers said Travis McMichael opened fire in self-defence after Arbery attacked him by throwing punches and trying to grab his gun.