BRUNSWICK, Ga. – The man who fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery spoke publicly about the killing for the first time Wednesday, testifying at his murder trial that the 25-year-old Black man forced him to make a split-second “life or death” decision by attacking him and grabbing his shotgun.
“I was thinking of my son," a teary Travis McMichael told the jury of the moment before he pulled the trigger. "It sounds weird, but that’s the first thing that hit me.”
He was the first witness called as defense attorneys for the three white men charged in Arbery's death opened their case, building on arguments that their clients were lawfully trying to stop burglaries in their neighborhood and that McMichael opened fire in self-defense.
The Feb. 23, 2020, shooting of Arbery after he was spotted running in the defendants' neighborhood deepened a national outcry over racial injustice after cellphone video of his death leaked online two months later. The slain man's family got support not only from civil rights activists, but also from powerful figures including Georgia's governor and President Joe Biden.
The three men on trial — Travis McMichael; his father, Greg McMichael; and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan — have had virtually no defenders aside from for their attorneys. Travis McMichael's testimony marked the most personal and detailed account yet of why the men suspected Arbery of wrongdoing and why McMichael shot him.
“He had my gun,” McMichael, 35, testified. “He struck me. It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would have gotten the shotgun from me, then this was a life or death situation, and I’m going to have to stop him from doing this so I shot.”
He said warnings between neighbors and social media chatter about car break-ins and suspicious people had been increasing since 2018 when he moved in with his parents in the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside the port city of Brunswick.
A man building a house five doors down from the McMichaels installed security cameras after items were stolen from a boat in his open garage. Those cameras recorded Arbery inside on four nights and on the day he was killed.
Travis McMichael said he was aware of the theft when he spotted Arbery, whom he didn't know, “lurking” and “creeping” outside the unfinished home on Feb. 11, 2020. He testified that when he tried to confront the man, Arbery reached for his waistband. McMichael fled and called 911.
“I’m not going to chase or investigate somebody who might be armed,” he testified.
But he did chase the same man 12 days later, after his father came running into the house in “almost a frantic state” and told him “the guy who has been breaking in down the road” had run past their house. Father and son armed themselves and headed out in Travis McMichael's pickup truck.
They came upon Arbery running, and McMichael said he drove next to him, yelling at Arbery to stop so they could talk. McMichael said that when he told Arbery “police are on the way,” Arbery ran faster — deepening his suspicion of the man.
A Black pickup — driven by Bryan — eventually joined the pursuit. It was Bryan who recorded the shooting on his cellphone.
McMichael had stopped and gotten out of his truck. Bryan's cellphone video shows Arbery running toward the truck. McMichael is standing with his shotgun by the driver's side door and his father in the truck bed.
McMichael testified that he pointed his gun at Arbery — saying his intent was to get him to back off — and Arbery then turned and ran around the passenger side.
McMichael said Arbery attacked him immediately: “He’s at the front quarter panel on the right hand side and he turns and is on me. And it is on, in a flash.”
In the video, the truck blocks the view until after the first gunshot is fired. The video then shows both men with hands on the gun as a bleeding Arbery punches McMichael. After the third shot, Arbery turns to run, then falls facedown in the street.
The medical examiner who performed the autopsy said only two of the shotgun blasts hit Arbery, but each struck at close range. One punched a hole in the center of his chest. The other severed an artery near his left armpit and fractured his arm.
Authorities say the McMichaels and Bryan chased Arbery for five minutes before the shooting, using their trucks to cut off Arbery's escape. Greg McMichael told police they had him “trapped like a rat.” Bryan said he used his truck to run Arbery off the road several times.
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said: “Mr. Travis McMichael killed my son all on assumptions. He didn’t know where Ahmaud was coming from or what Ahmaud had done. He just took actions into his own hands.”
Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, argued Wednesday that Bryan never intended to harm Arbery and never tried to hide his involvement in the pursuit. He noted that Bryan openly shared his video — the key piece of evidence — with police officers at the scene.
The defense began its case after Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley denied a request from defense attorneys to ban prominent civil rights leaders and other high-profile visitors from the courtroom, where seating has been limited because of COVID-19 precautions.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson sat with Arbery's parents in court for the second time this week. The defendants' attorneys have said Jackson's presence and that of others who have spoken in support of convictions could unfairly influence the jury.
The trial is taking place before a disproportionately white jury at the Glynn County courthouse in coastal Georgia.
Arbery, 25, had enrolled at a technical college and was preparing to study to become an electrician like his uncles when he was killed.
Associated Press reporter Kate Brumback in Atlanta contributed to this report.