Travis and Greg McMichael said they armed themselves and set off after Ahmaud Arbery because they thought he was a burglar and they wanted to catch him and hold him until police arrived.
When the 25-year-old black man turned around and fought during the chase, they said Travis McMichael shot him in self-defense.
It maintains the defense in the trial against three white men accused of killing Arbery, who was shot three times in February 2020 near Brunswick on the coast of Georgia. McMichaels, a father and son, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan are charged with murder and other crimes.
The defense strategy depends on the arrest and self-defense laws of the citizens of Georgia.
WHAT DOES THE DEFENSE SAY THAT SIT?
Greg McMichael, 65, told police he saw Arbery “drag ass” past his house and thought he had committed burglary nearby. McMichael ran in, grabbed a gun, and shouted at his son, who came out with a shotgun.
The two men jumped into a pickup and pursued Arbery through their subdivision. Arbery was on foot.
When he saw the chase going, Bryan climbed into his own pickup and recorded video on his cell phone as he participated in the chase.
Bryan, 52, told an investigator he used his truck several times to block Arbery and get him off the road. Greg McMichael told police he was shouting at Arbery to stop.
Finally, Bryan’s video shows Greg McMichael in bed on his pickup with a handgun and Travis McMichael, 35, outside the truck with a shotgun.
Defense attorneys say Arbery threw himself at Travis McMichael and his gun, and that was when Travis McMichael shot him.
WHAT IS A CITIZEN’S ARREST?
Greg McMichael told a police officer that they were chasing Arbery to prevent him from leaving the subdivision. He said they would “hold him” until police could “come and you know, check him out.”
A state law at the time said: “A private person may arrest a perpetrator if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge. If the offense is a crime and the perpetrator flees or attempts to escape, a private person may arrest him on reasonable and probable cause for suspicion. “
The actual words “citizen arrest” did not appear in the statute, and there was no obligation for a person attempting to detain anyone to declare that intent. Republican Gov. Brian Kemp signed a law that mostly repealed the law in May.
Arbery had appeared several times on security video inside a house under construction near McMichaels’ house.
Travis McMichael had seen him outside the house about two weeks earlier and feared Arbery was reaching for a gun that night as he reached for his pocket, Robert Rubin, a lawyer for McMichael, said in his opening statement.
Arbery’s behavior in the unfinished house would make a sensible person believe that a crime had been committed, Rubin said. That’s also why McMichaels felt they needed to arm themselves, he said.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said during her opening statement that Arbery was unarmed and gave the men no reason to suspect him of making mistakes. They just assumed he had committed a crime, she said.
Melissa Redmon, a former prosecutor and now a law professor at the University of Georgia, said it could be a “hard sale” to convince a jury that there was a probable cause to initiate a citizen’s arrest.
“It’s based on what it looks like they knew in the moment they confronted Mr Arbery or rather, the lack of information they had in the moment they confronted Mr Arbery,” she said.
HOW DID ARBERY’S KILLING LEAD TO THE REPEAL OF THE LAW?
The Citizen’s Arrest Act was approved in 1863 to assemble escaped slaves and was later used to justify the lynching of black people.
There had long been a push to repeal it. Arbery’s shooting widened a national outcry over racial injustice and prompted state lawmakers to act.
The repeal law says witnesses and spectators cannot detain people. Restaurant and store employees can still detain people they believe have stolen something or who go without paying. Authorized security guards and private detectives can also detain people.
Lethal force cannot be used to detain anyone, unless it is in self-protection, to protect a home or prevent a coercive crime.
Although the repeal law has come into force, the defense is able to quote the old law as it was in force at the time of Arbery’s killing.
WHAT MAKES SELF-DEFENSE?
It is tragic that Arbery died, Rubin said. “But at the time, Travis McMichael was acting in self-defense. He did not want to encounter Ahmaud Arbery physically. He was just trying to stop him from the police,” Rubin said.
Georgia law allows the use of lethal force if a person reasonably believes that another person is about to kill or injure him or another seriously. There is no obligation to withdraw first, as Georgia recognizes a person’s right to “stand your ground.”
But Georgia law does not allow anyone to use force if he is the aggressor unless he withdraws from the fight and effectively communicates it and the other person continues to use or threatens to use force against him.
As he raised the shotgun, Travis McMichael hoped to “de-escalate the situation,” but Arbery turned on McMichael “swinging aggressively” with his fists, Rubin said. McMichael shot him for fear Arbery would get the gun and shoot him or his father, Rubin said.
Prosecutors are likely to claim that Arbery was allowed to defend himself against a man who had chased him and pointed at him, Redmon said. An agent from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation said during a hearing in June that he believed Arbery was acting in self-defense.
Ultimately, the jury will have to consider moments before the shotgun blasts sounded and decide which man was the aggressor and therefore did not legally act in self-defense, Redmon said.
Associated Press writer Russ Bynum of Brunswick, Georgia, contributed to this report.