Georgia’s murder statute and how the Ahmaud Arbery trial may play out

One of three men on trial for fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery — who was Black — took the stand today in his own defense. Travis McMichael — who is white — testified a day after the prosecution rested in a murder trial that is racially charged and being closely watched around the country. William Brangham reports.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of three men on trial for fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery, who was Black, took the stand today in his own defense.

    Travis McMichael, who is white, testified a day after the prosecution rested in a murder trial that is racially charged and is being closely watched around the country.

    William Brangham has the latest.

  • William Brangham:

    McMichael is being charged with murder and other crimes, along with two other men.

    The accused say they were attempting a citizen's arrest on Arbery, suspecting him of robbing a nearby house. Prosecutors allege the men illegally chased down and killed Arbery.

    On the stand today, McMichael described the moment he shot Arbery, claiming it was done in self-defense:

  • Travis McMichael, Defendant:

    I shot him.

  • Jason Sheffield, Attorney For Travis McMichael:


  • Travis McMichael:

    He had my gun. He struck me. It was obvious that he was — it was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would have gotten the shotgun from me, then it was — this is a life-or-death situation.

    And I'm going to have to stop him from doing this. So I shot.

  • William Brangham:

    We should say the prosecution has disputed that characterization of the events.

    Joining me now is Margaret Coker. She's editor in chief of The Current, which is a nonprofit nonpartisan news organization in Southeastern Georgia. She has been covering the trial in Brunswick since it started last month.

    Margaret Coker, great to have you on the "NewsHour."

    So, we just heard there from Travis McMichael. Can you tell us a little bit more about what he is claiming on the witness stand that happened in this fatal moment?

  • Margaret Coker, The Current:


    Travis McMichael is, of course, the younger of the two McMichaels. He and his father are the co-defendants, along with neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan.

    The actions that they took that day are now under the microscope. Travis McMichael has always within straightforward, saying that he killed Ahmaud Arbery. The jury is going to decide that was murder or whether that was self-defense.

    And Travis McMichael took the stand today to try, as he said, put things in his own words and his own context, what was going through his mind when he decided to grab his gun along with his father and chase Ahmaud Arbery through their mostly white neighborhood on the outskirts of Brunswick in this small corner of Southeast Georgia.

    Now, what Travis is trying to do is make himself more human. He is a person that has been characterized by the special agents who decided to finally arrest him and his father and their co-defendants, he's been depicted as someone who is a white racist, a white supremacist, someone who had a Confederate Flag vanity license plate, someone who might have actually used the N-word when he stood over Ahmaud Arbery after he shot him.

    These are the kinds of depictions that his defense lawyers say are nonsense, that his family say is nonsense. And so he's been trying to put a human face on the events of that tragic day, February 23, 2020.

  • William Brangham:

    The defense also argued this week that — they moved for a mistrial, and they also said that the — all the charges should be dropped.

    What is the basis on which they're making that argument?

  • Margaret Coker:

    They say clearly that nothing illegal happened that day. They have always put forward that their clients have done nothing wrong, that they acted both within Georgia law, which at the time allowed for a citizen's arrest, and also that they acted in self-defense.

    They say the prosecution hasn't hit that bar, even to show that those crimes were committed. The judge, of course, has denied all of those motions. And so here we have the defendants finally taking the stand.

  • William Brangham:

    And what do you make of — the prosecution rested its case earlier this week. What do you make of the case? Have they, in your judgment, hit the bar for a murder conviction?

  • Margaret Coker:

    Yes, Georgia has a different murder statute than other states. There is no different degrees of murder here. It's felony murder or malice murder or manslaughter.

    And so the prosecution doesn't have to prove intent. She doesn't have to prove that someone was a racist when they chased Ahmaud Arbery down the street. All she has to prove is that, in the heat of the moment, that there were bad assumptions made, that there were two different — two different sets of opinions happening on the street that day, and they willfully killed someone.

    The citizen's arrest law that's been repealed, that was — there's very clear language that people trying to detain a person had to have seen a felony happen or have reasonable suspicion that that happened. Both of the McMichaels and Bryan have said they didn't see what had happened that day. They chased Arbery for bad assumptions.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Margaret Coker, editor in chief of The Current, thank you so much.

  • Margaret Coker:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment