Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers Were Justified Because Break-Ins ‘Scared’ Them, Defense Says

“What was happening in their neighborhood scared them,” an attorney for shooter Travis McMichael argued. “Imagine people lurking and sneaking around your property at night.”
November 22, 2021, 7:30pm
Travis McMichael speaks from the witness stand during his trial Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga.
Travis McMichael speaks from the witness stand during his trial Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Brunswick, Ga. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, Pool)

Travis McMichael had every reason to fear a 25-year-old Black man running through his Georgia neighborhood and was justified in attempting to make a “citizen’s arrest” that led to the deadly shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, an attorney for the defense said in one final appeal to jurors.

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Attorney Jason Sheffield said his client did nothing wrong when he and his father, Gregory McMichael, decided to chase after Arbery on the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020, because of alleged reports of stolen goods, trespassing, and break-ins in the neighborhood.

“What was happening in their neighborhood scared them,” Sheffield said during closing arguments in the Glynn County courthouse Monday. “It was unsettling to imagine people lurking and sneaking around your property at night.”

Videos from neighborhood security cameras in the weeks before Feb. 23 showed Arbery and others on an under-construction property in the Satilla Shores area of Glynn County, Georgia. And seeing the man from these videos return gave the McMichaels probable suspicion to pursue and carry out a legal citizen’s arrest, which Sheffield argued are inherent parts of the duty and responsibility of protecting the neighborhood at the time. (Citizen arrests were once legal in the state of Georgia but have since been outlawed after public outcry following Arbery’s killing.)

But when Arbery decided to run up to Travis as he pointed a shotgun toward him, it gave Travis the right to defend himself.

According to the defense, even if Arbery was unarmed, the Black man’s decision to attack the shotgun-wielding Travis means he was justified in using self-defense, and that should be enough to set him free.

“You do have the right to make a citizen’s arrest,” Sheffield said. “You do have the right to stop a person and to hold and detain them for the police. And there is risk with that. And there are tragic consequences that can come from that.”

Prosecutors, on the other hand, reiterated that the McMichaels and fellow defendant William “Roddie” Bryan made dangerous assumptions about Ahmaud, who to their knowledge committed no crime that day. And their supposed suspicion was nothing more than secondhand information used to justify their decision to chase a “Black man running down the street.”

“You're gonna have to distinguish between assumptions, based on gossip and rumor and all this neighborhood talk on Facebook, and actual probable cause to believe a crime has been committed,” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told jurors. “And the state’s position is all three of these defendants made assumptions.”

According to the state’s arguments, the suggestion that Arbery was a threat holds no weight. Considering the fact that the unarmed Black man was chased by three men, two of whom were armed, in pickup trucks, without being provoked, was a violation of his rights. They say that Arbery was completely within his right to ignore these strangers chasing after him.

Prosecutors also attempted to dismantle the claim of self-defense, saying Arbery was the one who actually tried to defend himself when he went toe-to-toe with Travis McMichael.

“If you're committing a felony against somebody, you don't get to claim self-defense.”

“You cannot claim self-defense in certain circumstances,” Dunikoski said. “If you are the initial unjustified aggressor, you don't get in self-defense. If you're committing a felony against somebody, you don't get to claim self-defense.”

The state argues the McMichaels began the encounter by driving up to Arbery and demanding he stop. This would continue for five minutes as they insisted he answer their questions. Gregory McMichael even admitted to telling Arbery that he’d “blow your fucking head off.”

And when Bryan and the McMichaels allegedly tried to cut Arbery off with their vehicles, according to evidence of Ahmaud’s shirt fibers and handprints on his vehicle, the trio were committing the felony of assault.

“Imagine if armed robbers say, ‘Well, I have to defend myself against the victim of my crime,’” Dunikoski said. “Could you imagine if that was the law? But isn't that what they're saying? How dare Mr. Arbery defend himself against their four felonies?”

For these reasons, the state asked jurors to find the three defendants guilty.

“The bottom line is, but for their actions, but for their decisions, but for their choices, Ahmaud Arbery would be alive,” Dunikoski said. “And that’s why they’ve been indicted with murder, felony murder, and the four felonies that led to the murders.”