'Life or death:' Travis McMichael tells Georgia jury he felt threatened by Ahmaud Arbery

Travis McMichael speaks from the witness stand as the murder trial over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery continues, in Brunswick, Georgia, US November 17, 2021. ― Stephen B. Morton/Pool via Reuters
Travis McMichael speaks from the witness stand as the murder trial over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery continues, in Brunswick, Georgia, US November 17, 2021. ― Stephen B. Morton/Pool via Reuters

GEORGIA, Nov 18 ― Travis McMichael testified at his murder trial yesterday that he shot Ahmaud Arbery because he thought the Black man was attacking him after McMichael and two others chased Arbery through a mostly white Georgia neighbourhood.

“I shot him,” McMichael, who is white, said in a trembling voice as he held back tears. “It was a life or death situation.”

McMichael testified that in the final moments he feared for his life when Arbery grabbed for the shotgun as McMichael pointed it in Arbery’s direction. They grappled, with both men holding onto the weapon, and McMichael opened fire, he said.

The deadly encounter occurred outside the coastal city of Brunswick on February 23, 2020. Cellphone footage of the killing sparked outrage when it emerged two months later.

McMichael, 35, has pleaded not guilty to murder and other crimes alongside two other white defendants: his 65-year-old father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbour William “Roddie” Bryan.

McMichael’s decision to testify was a risky legal manoeuvre as it opened him up to questioning by prosecutors, who have said they might ask him about evidence he had “racial animus” against Black people if he took the stand.

McMichael, who occasionally dabbed his eyes with a tissue, testified that he and his father thought Arbery, 25, was a burglar because the son had seen Arbery “creeping in the shadows” around a house under construction nearby on the night of February 11, less than two weeks before the shooting.

Police had told him that nothing was taken on that day, but McMichael nonetheless suspected Arbery may have committed theft on a different occasion and that he may have been armed.

McMichael and his father grabbed their weapons after Arbery ran past their driveway and chased him in a pickup truck for five minutes.

“I ask him: ‘Hey, what are you doing? What’s going on?’” McMichael testified, saying he pulled alongside Arbery running in the road. Arbery never spoke a word in reply and looked angry with clenched teeth, McMichael said.

“He was mad, which made me think something’s happened,” McMichael said. Prosecutors say the defendants had unfairly assumed the worst about a Black man out for a Sunday afternoon run.

Defence lawyers have said the men were legally trying to stop Arbery under a now-repealed Georgia citizen’s arrest law, and the younger McMichael shot him in self defence. They face life in prison if convicted of murder.

The owner of the half-built house where Arbery was seen on several nights in the months preceding February 2020 has previously said through a lawyer that Arbery may have stopped there to drink from a water faucet. Arbery had nothing on him besides his running clothes and shoes on the day he was shot.

McMichael earlier described law-enforcement training he had during nine years as a US Coast Guard mechanic.

Speaking calmly and often turning to address the jurors directly, McMichael said he had arrest powers and was trained on using force and the need for reasonable suspicion of a crime. Although he never used physical force in his Coast Guard duties, he said had been taught that aiming a gun at someone can be used to deescalate a situation. ― Reuters