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McMichael testifies in his murder trial that he felt threatened by Ahmaud Arbery

NOEL KING, HOST:

Travis McMichael, one of the three men on trial for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., last year, took the witness stand in his own defense yesterday. NPR's Debbie Elliott has been following the trial. She's in Brunswick this morning. Good morning, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Morning.

KING: A lot of people have seen the graphic cellphone video of this killing, which is really central to the prosecution's case. What did Travis McMichael say in his defense?

ELLIOTT: Well, he testified that he and his father, Greg, had armed themselves and went in pursuit of Ahmaud Arbery in a pickup truck because they saw him running down their street. He said they wanted to question Arbery about neighborhood break-ins after he'd seen Arbery a couple of weeks earlier in a home construction site. But Arbery wouldn't stop. McMichael described turning the truck around several times to try to catch up with Arbery as he was running away. He said Arbery looked angry with clenched teeth. Eventually, McMichael got out of his truck with a shotgun. And there was a struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: I shot.

JASON SHEFFIELD: Why?

MCMICHAEL: He had my gun. He struck me. It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would've got the shotgun from me, then it was a - this is a life-or-death situation.

ELLIOTT: That was his defense attorney, Jason Sheffield, asking the why. McMichael's answer there was he was acting in self-defense. Sheffield also spent a lot of time asking McMichael about what he called law enforcement training that he got as a petty officer in the U.S. Coast Guard. His actual job was that of a mechanic.

KING: That's interesting. Did prosecutors ask McMichael about this?

ELLIOTT: Yeah. That was one of the things that prosecutor Linda Dunikoski zeroed in on was that training, in particular whether he was trained on a defendant's rights under the Fifth Amendment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: You learned, as part of your time in the military, that you can't force people to speak with you.

MCMICHAEL: That's correct.

DUNIKOSKI: OK. And that if someone walks away, you have to let them walk away.

MCMICHAEL: Yes.

ELLIOTT: She also asked him about whether or not he was making assumptions about crime in the neighborhood based on rumor. She got McMichael to admit that he did not call 911 before leaving their house and going in pursuit of Arbery. That call was not made until just moments before he was killed.

KING: People are watching this trial very closely. How did folks react to McMichael's testimony yesterday?

ELLIOTT: You know, outside the courthouse, after the testimony had wrapped up for the day, Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she actually appreciated hearing McMichael's testimony

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANDA COOPER-JONES: Because it gave my family and I some insight on what he was actually thinking. Mr. Travis McMichael killed my son all on assumptions. He had no real facts on where Ahmaud was coming from, what Ahmaud had done. He just took actions into his own hands.

ELLIOTT: Now, there will be more from Travis McMichael today as the state continues its cross-examination. It's not exactly clear yet whether either of his co-defendants - his father, Greg McMichael, and another neighbor, William Roddie Bryan - will also choose to testify.

KING: Debbie, can I ask you, lastly, how the bigger theme of what racial justice means in this country is present in and outside of the courtroom?

ELLIOTT: Well, certainly, activists have been talking about it outside the courthouse. But, you know, in the last couple of weeks, it's also figured prominently in the courtroom. Bryan's attorney, Kevin Gough, has made several motions for mistrials after complaining about, quote, "Black pastors" in the courtroom. Reverend Al Sharpton was there last week, the reverend Jesse Jackson here this week sitting in the gallery with the Arbery family. At one point, the judge took Gough to task for what he called reprehensible statements. Now, Gough argues that having civil rights icons in court is an undue influence on the jury. Yesterday, the McMichaels' lawyers joined him in asking to bar civil rights leaders from the gallery. Here's attorney Jason Sheffield.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SHEFFIELD: They represent a national conversation that is for the conviction of the defendants. And for that reason, I think that they should not be present in the courtroom, where the jury can see them and be reminded of the national conversation.

ELLIOTT: So as you hear, the national conversation about racial justice - very prominent. The judge denied that motion. And now, today, in part in response to all of these arguments, more than 100 clergy are planning a faith march outside the courthouse.

KING: NPR's Debbie Elliott in Brunswick, Ga. Thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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