Defense in Ahmaud Arbury Case Portrays Fatal Shooting as Self-Defense

The lawyers represent Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Mr. Arbery, and his father. The lawyer for the third defendant deferred his opening statement until later in the trial.

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Defense lawyers portray the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery as self-defense.

Robert G. Rubin, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, making his opening statement on Friday in the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial. The two other defendants have their own legal teams.Credit…Pool photo by Octavio Jones

Nov. 5, 2021Updated 4:22 p.m. ET

In an opening statement on Friday, the lawyer for Travis McMichael, the man who shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery, painted his client as a man who felt a “duty” to protect his neighborhood, and who had reason to believe that Mr. Arbery had committed a burglary — giving him the right, under Georgia law, to carry out a citizen’s arrest.

The lawyer, Robert G. Rubin, said that Mr. McMichael was trying to “de-escalate” a potentially violent situation when he pointed his shotgun at Mr. Arbery as he was sprinting toward him. And Mr. Rubin said that Mr. McMichael acted in self-defense when he pulled the trigger after Mr. Arbery turned toward him and the two men tussled.

At that point, Mr. McMichael “has no choice, because if this guy gets his gun, he’s dead or his dad’s dead,” Mr. Rubin said, referring to Mr. McMichael’s father and fellow defendant Gregory McMichael. As a veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, Travis McMichael was taught “never lose your weapon. And that’s why he shoots,” he said.

Mr. Rubin’s opening remarks followed the prosecution’s opening statement, in which the lead prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, said that it was Mr. Arbery who had been “under attack” by the defendants.

Mr. Rubin was the first of the three defense teams to offer an opening statement as the trial opened on Friday. Franklin Hogue, a lawyer for the elder Mr. McMichael, spoke next, echoing the argument that the defendants had acted in self-defense. Gregory McMichael, he said, was “in abject fear that he is about to witness his only son be shot.” A lawyer for the third defendant, William Bryan, deferred his statement until later in the trial.

Mr. Rubin’s argument in favor of Travis McMichael’s innocence, rooted in the citizen’s arrest law and the principle of self-defense, had been widely expected.

He spent the first part of his statement focusing on the break-ins and property crimes in Satilla Shores, the neighborhood where Mr. McMichael was living in his parents’ house. It was a neighborhood “on edge,” Mr. Rubin said. Residents posted their concerns on social media. Some told their children not to play outside after dark. People put up security cameras. As a result, Mr. Rubin said, “people were alert to suspicious behavior.”

Mr. Rubin noted that Mr. Arbery had been spotted via security cameras in a half-built house in Satilla Shores four times before the afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020, when he visited the house, sprinted away, and was soon chased by the three men in two trucks.

In two cases, the owner of the house, Larry English, had called the police, but Mr. Arbery had vanished before they arrived. Mr. English, Mr. Rubin said, had been telling neighbors that a suspicious person had been visiting the house, and that items had been taken from a boat he sometimes kept on the property.

Mr. Arbery’s fourth visit to the property — in which he never seemed to do more than walk aroound — occurred on the night of Feb. 11. That evening at around 7:30, Mr. McMichael left his house to fill up his car and saw a figure darting across the street, and then hiding in the shadows. It was a man, who eventually emerged from behind a portable toilet.

Mr. McMichael aimed the headlights of his truck at the man and got out of his car to ask why he was there. Mr. Rubin said Mr. McMichael then saw the man reach into his waist, as if reaching for a weapon.

Understand the Killing of Ahmaud Arbery

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The shooting. On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, was shot and killed after being chased by three white men while jogging near his home on the outskirts of Brunswick, Ga. The slaying of Mr. Arbery was captured in a graphic video that was widely viewed by the public.

The victim. Mr. Arbery was a former high school football standout and an avid jogger. At the time of his death, he was living with his mother outside the small coastal city in Southern Georgia.

The suspects. Three white men — Gregory McMichael, 67, his 35-year-old son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — stand accused of murdering Mr. Arbery. They have also been indicted on federal hate crime charges. The men told authorities they suspected Mr. Arbery of committing a series of break-ins.

The fallout. The release of the video of the shooting sparked nationwide protests and prompted Georgia lawmakers to make significant changes to the state’s criminal law, including passage of the state’s first hate crimes statute.

The trial. With an unsettling video set to play a starring role in court, the case bears similarities to that of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer found guilty of murdering George Floyd. The trial is likely to address issues such as vigilantism and the role racism played in the three defendants’ actions.

The jury. After an extraordinarily long process, 12 jurors in the case were selected. The jury, which is made up of residents of Glynn County, where more than a quarter of the population is Black, only includes one Black person.

So on the day of the confrontation and the killing, Mr. Rubin said, Mr. McMichael had probable cause to assume that a burglary had occurred — thus giving him the right to make a citizen’s arrest — and reason to suspect that Mr. Arbery might be armed, given the alleged movement of his hand toward his waistband on the night of Feb. 11.

After the shooting, Mr. Rubin said, Mr. McMichael was “distraught,” “upset” and covered in blood.

“There’s no glee in having done what he just did. It’s awful,” he said.

He asked the jurors to put aside their emotions and apply the law to the facts of the case: “The only right verdict is not guilty on each and every count in the indictment.”

Mr. Hogue, the attorney for Gregory McMichael, then walked jurors through the events of the February afternoon from his client’s point of view. The elder Mr. McMichael was sitting outside his home upholstering the seats to his truck when he saw Mr. Arbery “sprinting” past his house, causing him to become convinced that Mr. Arbery was running “away from something or someone,” Mr. Hogue said.

Certain that Mr. Arbery was the same man he had seen in videos from a neighbor whose boat had been burglarized, he yelled out to his son. The two got into Travis McMichael’s truck and chased Mr. Arbery with the sole intention of detaining him for police or identifying him, Mr. Hogue said.

He noted that Travis McMichael was in the driver’s seat while his father sat atop his grandson’s car seat in the back, later moving to the bed of the truck where there was a toolbox he could sit on.

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