Both prosecutors and defense attorneys raised the argument of self-defense in the opening arguments of the trial of Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan, the three men charged in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery in a Brunswick, Georgia neighborhood. For prosecutor Linda Dunikoski, the facts are clear: it was Arbery who was defending his life by reaching for a shotgun wielded by Travis McMichael after he was chased and pursued through the winding streets of the Satilla Shores neighborhood.
The prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, said that the men had “assumed the worst” about Mr. Arbery but had no “immediate knowledge” of him committing a crime when they decided to chase him in their trucks through their neighborhood.
“A very wise person once said, ‘Don’t assume the worst of another person’s intentions until you actually know what’s going on with them,’ ” Ms. Dunikoski told the 12-person jury, of which 11 are white and one is Black. But, she said, “all three of these defendants did everything they did based on assumptions. Not on facts, not on evidence — on assumptions. And they made decisions in their driveways based on those assumptions that took a young man’s life. And that is why we’re here.”
Both prosecution and defense referenced items stolen from a nearby home under construction, with attorneys for the McMichaels arguing that the father and son had every reason to believe that the man seen on video in the home was the person responsible for the theft of items from the neighborhood, and so they began to pursue Arbery in order to make a lawful citizen’s arrest.
Ms. Dunikoski also described in detail how the two McMichaels and the third defendant, their neighbor William Bryan, chased Mr. Arbery for five minutes as he ran through their neighborhood, trying to evade them — the McMichaels in one pickup truck and Mr. Bryan in another. She said that in the midst of the chase, Travis McMichael stopped and asked Mr. Arbery, “Where you running from? What are you doing?” Mr. Arbery ignored him.
At some point during the pursuit, she said, Gregory McMichael, who was armed with a handgun, said to Mr. Arbery, “Stop or I’ll blow your fucking head off,” language, she said, that indicated an intent to harm Mr. Arbery, not simply talk to him.
She said that Mr. Bryan tried to hit Mr. Arbery four times with his pickup truck, at one point forcing him into a ditch.
And Ms. Dunikoski played the video that Mr. Bryan recorded on his cellphone, showing the moments when the two trucks had pinned Mr. Arbery in. She said that Gregory McMichael later claimed that Mr. Arbery had been “trapped like a rat.”
Ms. Dunikoski said the video showed Travis McMichael pointing the shotgun at Mr. Arbery as he ran toward the McMichaels’ truck. She noted that Travis McMichael had stepped out of the truck in one lane of the two-lane street, by the driver’s side door, with the truck blocking the second lane. The video shows Mr. Arbery running to the passenger side of the truck in an attempt to evade him. The two men appear to meet head on in front of the truck.
“What did McMichael do with that shotgun?” Ms. Dunikoski said. “He stepped around that open door and moved toward Mr. Arbery. He’s got a shotgun and he’s moving toward him to intercept him.”
Several shots are fired as the men struggle. Mr. Arbery falls to the ground after the last.
Who was acting in self-defense, Ahmaud Arbery or Travis and Gregory McMichael? Based on everything I’ve seen to date, I don’t think it’s that difficult a question. Ahmaud Arbery was in fear for his life when he reached for that shotgun. Travis McMichael may have been afraid for his life too, but he put himself in that position when he decided to go chase after Arbery with a shotgun by his side, and made the further decision to block Arbery’s path with his truck and step outside shotgun in hand.
There was certainly no need for the McMichaels and Bryan to go chasing after Arbery when they saw him running down the street. But the defense maintains that the men had a right to do so under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law (which ended up being repealed by the Republican-controlled legislature after Arbery’s death).
Dunikoski told the jurors that the argument doesn’t fly because none of the men had any immediate knowledge that Arbery had committed a crime, either that day or previously. There were some items stolen from a boat on the property of the home under construction, but the home’s owner believed that a man and woman spotted on surveillance video were the ones responsible. Travis McMichael had a gun stolen out of his truck about six weeks before his confrontation with Arbery, but there’s no evidence to suggest that Arbery was involved in the burglary… at least none that’s yet come to light.
There was a telling statement from Gregory McMichael’s attorney Franklin Hogue during opening arguments, when he said that “this case turns on intent, belief, knowledge, and the reasons for those beliefs, whether they were true or not.” Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law only applies if a crime is committed within the arrestee’s presence or within their immediate knowledge. From what has come to light before the trial, there wasn’t even enough evidence for police to arrest Arbery with felony burglary, much less for the defendants to try to do so. In fact, Gregory McMichael told police after Arbery was killed that he didn’t know if Arbery had broken into the home under construction, and that his intent in chasing after him was to “stop this guy so that he could be arrested or be identified at the very least.”
You don’t make a citizen’s arrest so police can check and see if someone looks like a guy on surveillance video that may or may not be the person responsible for the theft of tools. That’s just not how the law was supposed to work.
As with the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, I am keeping an open mind towards the case now underway in Georgia. But unlike the Rittenhouse case, I believe that all of the public evidence that’s come to light in the death of Ahmaud Arbery points to his death being an act of murder, not self-defense.