Black pastors flock to courthouse from across the country as prosecutor pokes at credibility of man who fired fatal shots
The lead prosecutor in Travis McMichael’s murder trial hammered him Thursday for contradictions and failing to take steps to avoid the deadly confrontation that ended with him shooting Ahmaud Arbery on a suburban Brunswick street in February 2020.
Cobb County Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski pointed out multiple inconsistencies between the statement Travis McMichael gave to police a couple of hours after the shooting and his courtroom testimony and also poked holes in his claims that he should skirt the murder conviction because he acted in self-defense.
Thursday marked the 10th day of testimony in the high-profile coastal Georgia trial where three white men, father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, face charges of murder, false imprisonment and aggravated assault for the death of the 25-year-old Arbery, who was Black.
Over the course of two days and hours of testimony inside the Glynn County courtroom, Travis McMichael testified that he shot Arbery out of fear for his and his father’s lives after they spent five minutes chasing Arbery in a pickup truck. The chase ended with Travis McMichael firing his shotgun at Arbery three times at close range.
Dunikoski peppered Travis McMichael about the multiple opportunities for him to have stopped chasing Arbery through the defendants’ Satilla Shores neighborhood and avoided the deadly confrontation.
For example, Travis McMichael could have made sure his father had called 911 before going after Arbery, they could have let him run away while by Bryan’s house, or stopped at the times where they lost sight of him, she said.
The McMichaels argue they were attempting a citizen’s arrest on Arbery who had been captured several times by security cameras in a neighbor’s home that was under construction. They have described their response that day as a reaction to a neighborhood on edge because of property crimes.
“So you’re telling this jury that a man who has spent five minutes running away from you, you’re now thinking is somehow going to want to continue to engage with you – someone with a shotgun – and your father, a man, who’s just said, ‘Stop or I’ll blow your f****** head off,’ by trying to get in their truck?’” Dunikoski asked.
“Yes ma’am,” Travis McMichael answered.
In another exchange, Dunikoski asked Travis McMichael why he continued to pursue Arbery after initial attempts to speak with him.
“Three times he’s demonstrated to you that he does not want to talk to you, correct,” she said. “He also demonstrated no threat to you, he hasn’t pulled out a gun. He’s not said one word to you, is not threatening you in any way, verbally or physically.”
Likewise, Dunikoski questioned discrepancies between Travis McMichael’s testimony, police statements, and what he told an officer after coming across Arbery outside the unoccupied home a couple of weeks earlier.
Throughout the grilling, Travis McMichael attributed his inconsistency to feeling stress after the shooting.
“I was trying to my best ability but under the circumstances of going through a traumatic event,” McMichael said about speaking with police. “That was the most traumatic event that I have ever been through in my life. I’ve never been through a situation like that.”
When speaking with an officer following the shooting, Travis McMichael never mentioned being worried about the safety of his father, a 65-year-old former Glynn County police officer and investigator with the Brunswick district attorney’s office, while Greg McMichael stood in the back of a pickup truck carrying a .357 Magnum revolver, the prosecution said.
Travis McMichael said that he was under the impression that his father called 911 as they began searching for Arbery and didn’t realize he was mistaken until just prior to the deadly encounter.
Travis McMichael said his intention at the end was to keep an eye on Arbery and tell the cops which direction he went until Arbery got close enough and a struggle ensued over the shotgun. Even in moments directly beforehand, the lead prosecutor argued that Travis McMichael still could have avoided the situation.
Travis McMichael also testified that he doesn’t remember hearing his father threatening to kill Arbery, a comment Greg McMichael told authorities that he made.
Travis McMichael detailed what he believed was happening in conflicts between Arbery and Bryan’s Chevy Silverado.
Bryan told police that four times during the pursuit he attempted to run Arbery into a ditch, but the McMichaels have denied coordinating with Bryan, who recorded the end of the chase with his cell phone.
“Do you want this jury to believe that it’s Mr. Arbery who’s the aggressor with the black truck?” Dunikoski said. “Not the black truck trying to run him off the road to help you?”
But Travis McMichael said he was unaware of what was occurring as Arbery appeared to be “attacking” the truck as both came into his vision.
“I didn’t see the truck trying to run him off the road,” he responded.
Black pastors come out in force
Hundreds of people gathered outside the Glynn County Courthouse Thursday to support the family in response to Bryan’s lawyer attempting to block Black pastors from sitting with the family at the trial.
Last week defense attorney Kevin Gough asked the judge to block any more well-known Black pastors from sitting in the gallery after Rev. Al Sharpton sat in the courtroom and Gough reiterated his opposition this week as Rev. Jesse Jackson returned.
On Thursday, Gough continued to express his displeasure at the presence of the Black pastors. Gough said a person inside the courthouse uttered, ‘I support Black pastors.’
“Given that the Black pastors support the conviction of our client, we would object to those kinds of slogans being outside in the foyer where witnesses are sitting,” Gough said.
Sharpton and Jackson were joined at the demonstration and prayer vigil on the courthouse grounds by dozens of Black clergy and civil rights activists that included Martin Luther King III, attorney Benjamin Crump, as well as attorney Lee Merritt, who represents Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones.
At Thursday afternoon’s prayer rally, Cooper-Jones said she was grateful for the outpouring of support.
“God will put people in your path to help you,” she said. “You are the people for my family and I, and I want to say thank you.”
A national spotlight has shone brightly on the case following the public release of Bryan’s cell phone footage showing the final moments of the chase, the shotgun firing and Arbery falling to the street. The case is characterized by many as a modern-day lynching of a Black man at the hands of white men using an antebellum-era citizen’s arrest law to justify their actions. State lawmakers repealed Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law in the 2021 legislative session.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case in spring 2020 after the public release of footage depicting Arbery’s death and within weeks the McMichaels were arrested. Bryan was arrested two weeks later.
The jury makeup has been criticized for only having one Black member where race permeates the proceedings, even as Gough declared during selection he didn’t believe the case was about race.
Sharpton said Thursday that he’s seen many cases that involved law enforcement officers and the courtrooms remained packed with uniformed police.
“And nobody ever says that’s intimidation, or influence,” he said. “So if this lawyer sets a precedent with us, then he sets a precedent that we can judge whoever’s in a courtroom anywhere in the United States.”
King, the son of the slain civil rights icon, said he found Gough’s remarks troubling and that the McMichaels and Bryan must be held accountable. Closing arguments are set for Monday.
“For us it feels very racist to say you cannot come to a public proceeding,” King said. “I’d think that a significant number of Black folks were offended by the statement he made.”
Stanley Dunlap is a reporter for the Georgia Recorder which first published this report.