The man who killed Ahmaud Arbery took the stand Wednesday and testified that he felt he faced a “life or death situation” when he fired the fatal shotgun blasts.
Travis McMichael, his voice quavering, shed tears when he said he shot the unarmed Arbery because he felt he had no other choice. The 35-year-old defendant also said he “didn’t want to escalate the situation” as he and his father, both armed, chased Arbery down the street that afternoon in his truck.
Their goal, he said, was to follow Arbery until police arrived. He believed the 25-year-old Arbery was responsible for a string of break-ins and he told him repeatedly to stop.
“My goal is to let the police know where he’s at and watch what’s going on, to see where he’s going,” McMichael told attorney Jason Sheffield from the stand. At one point, McMichael said, he drove up next to the running Arbery and told him, “Hey, the police are coming.”
But as Arbery ran toward him, McMichael feared he “wouldn’t have time to react.” So he raised his Remington shotgun toward the advancing Arbery, who stopped running at McMichael and ran around the passenger side of the truck.
McMichael testified that he expected Arbery would continue running away.
“It was what I assumed would happen,” he said. When Arbery got to the front of the truck, “he turns and is on me in a flash, immediately on me.”
He added, “He grabs the shotgun and I believe I was struck on that first instance that we made contact.”
“What were you thinking of at that moment?” Sheffield asked him.
“I was thinking of my son,” an emotional McMichael said of his then 3-year-old. “It sounds weird but it was the first thing, the first thing that hit me.”
“What did you do?” his attorney asked.
“I shot him,” said McMichael. “He had my gun. He struck me. It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would’ve gotten the shotgun from me, that this is a life or death situation and I’m going to have to stop him from doing this, so I shot.”
After he fired the first shotgun blast, Arbery kept fighting, McMichael testified. “We were locked up,” he said. “He was on that shotgun. I knew that I was losing this. … I knew that he was overpowering me.” It was then that McMichael fired at least two more shotgun blasts, although he testified he could only remember firing twice.
McMichael, his father Greg McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, face murder and other charges in Arbery’s shooting. The defendants contend they were trying to stop Arbery, whom they suspected in a string of break-ins.
As the McMichaels pursued the fleeing Arbery, Travis assumed that his father had already called 911, he testified. When he realized he hadn’t, Travis McMichael called police and handed the phone to his father as Arbery made his final approach to the pickup.
Arbery had been spotted repeatedly entering a nearby home under construction, and McMichael encountered him just 12 days before the deadly Feb. 23, 2020, encounter.
On Feb. 11, 2020, McMichael called 911 after seeing Arbery outside the vacant home. He said the saw the man reach for something in his waistband before walking into the house.
On the stand, McMichael called the encounter “alarming” and said he saw Arbery “creeping” through the yard to avoid detection. When police arrived, he saw Arbery on the neighbor’s surveillance footage.
Crime in their Satilla Shores neighborhood had increased in the months leading up to the shooting, McMichael said. He testified that in 2019, his car was broken into so often that he started leaving its doors unlocked outside his home. On Jan. 1, 2020, his gun was taken from his truck.
Many in the community were concerned about the spike in break-ins, he said, and neighbors started posting about the thefts on neighborhood Facebook pages.
“You’d drive down Satilla Drive to my house and you’d see cameras, you know, starting to come up on every house,” McMichael said. “And also, people weren’t going out as much in the evening times either.”
On cross examination, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski noted there were just four entering auto complaints in the neighborhood in all of 2019.
“So it’s fair to say you had incomplete information about who was committing the crimes in Satilla Shores?” she asked.
“Yes,” McMichael said.
Both Travis and his father had seen the Arbery on their surveillance videos, he testified.
But Arbery wasn’t the only one spotted entering the home, and Dunikoski got Travis McMichael to admit that he knew that.
“I knew there were several people,” McMichael said.
“So any one of these people could have been the people who had taken the items,” Dunikoski said.
Travis McMichael agreed.
Calling defendants to testify is risky because it opens them up to cross-examination, but it’s a strategy attorneys can use to help humanize their clients in front of jurors. Travis said he wanted to give his side of the story.
Dunikoski again asked Travis McMichael why he and his father decided to chase Arbery. McMichael said he figured something had happened at the home nearby based on his father’s reaction. He added he saw a neighbor pointing down the road in the direction Arbery was running.
“Something has happened with this guy again,” McMichael told Dunikoski. “Let’s see what happened, let me make sure everybody’s OK and identify him.”
“Based on everything, you think something had happened. But you had no idea what happened?” Dunikoski asked.
“At that time, no ma’am,” McMichael told her.
Outside the courthouse, Arbery’s mother said Travis McMichael had no proof her son had committed a crime when he chased him that afternoon.
“He killed my son based on assumptions,” said Wanda Cooper-Jones. “He had no real facts about what Ahmaud had done.”
Cooper also said she doesn’t feel that the predominately white jury will be overly sympathetic to the defense’s testimony.
”The tears he shed today,” she said. “Can you imagine the tears that we have shed?”