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Man who shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery took the stand to face cross-examination

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Defendant Travis McMichael spent a second day on the witness stand in Brunswick, Ga. He is one of three white men charged with murder in last year's killing of Ahmaud Arbery. The 25-year-old Black man was shot to death while running down a residential street. McMichael's testimony comes amid a growing public outcry over the defense's attempt to bar Black pastors from the courtroom.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: When Black pastors are under attack, what do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Stand up. Fight back.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: What do we do?

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Stand up. Fight back.

CHANG: That was the scene on the courthouse lawn today. And NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now from Brunswick, where she's been following the events in and outside the courthouse. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: Hey. So let's first talk about today's testimony. As we said, one of the defendants, Travis McMichael, was on the witness stand. He was, I understand, under cross-examination today. Tell us what happened.

ELLIOTT: You know, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski questioned him at length about all the discrepancies between what he told officers on February 23, 2020, and what he testified to yesterday when he said that he shot and killed Ahmaud Arbery in self-defense after Arbery tried to get his shotgun. He had told the detective back then that he wasn't sure. She asked McMichael about what had prompted him and his father, Greg, to arm themselves and pursue Arbery in a pickup truck after they saw him running down their street.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Didn't brandish any weapons.

TRAVIS MCMICHAEL: No, ma'am.

DUNIKOSKI: Didn't pull out any guns.

MCMICHAEL: No, ma'am.

DUNIKOSKI: Didn't pull out any knife.

MCMICHAEL: No, ma'am.

DUNIKOSKI: Never reached for anything, did he?

MCMICHAEL: No.

DUNIKOSKI: He just ran.

MCMICHAEL: Yes, he was just running.

ELLIOTT: The defendants say when they saw him running, they suspected Arbery of neighborhood break-ins and were trying to catch him for the police.

CHANG: OK. Meanwhile, can you just remind us, Debbie, about this controversy surrounding Black pastors in the courtroom?

ELLIOTT: There have been numerous motions from defendants seeking to remove the Reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson from the courtroom, where they've been sitting with Arbery's family at various times. Defense lawyers say that's an improper influence on the jury. The judge does not agree. That's what brought hundreds of people out for a demonstration on the courthouse lawn today, led by Sharpton and Jackson. Many in the crowd were faith leaders, including the Reverend Parish Brown, who is a Baptist preacher from South Carolina.

PARISH BROWN: He wants us to not have the opportunity to come into a public facility to support a family in their time of need. Hello. That makes absolutely no sense.

ELLIOTT: Now, all this activity does have some local activists a little bit nervous. I spoke with Bobby Henderson, who was with the group A Better Glynn.

BOBBY HENDERSON: We understand that the defense has attempted to get a mistrial from the beginning. So we want to make sure that all of the good attention isn't used for to give him the elements necessary that he has to get a mistrial or a credible appeal.

ELLIOTT: Certainly concerns and a strong local sense that this trial needs to finish untainted.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, you're there. Can you talk about, like, what other people are saying about this trial? What's the atmosphere like right now?

ELLIOTT: You know, today was sort of part prayer meeting, part march, part festival. There were vendors selling T-shirts, people playing music from speakers, leading chants of things like Black pastors matter. This is the biggest group of people here at the courthouse since the trial began. One speaker likened Brunswick to the Selma for a new generation, a nod to the civil rights movement. I talked with Jeffrey Fayette (ph), who came from Greenville, S.C. He's with a social justice group, and he said the stakes for this trial are immeasurable.

JEFFREY FAYETTE: If these defendants - who basically lynched this man for taking a jog through a neighborhood - get off with this, I don't know what's going to happen. It's going - it'll set things back another 30 years, 40 years, you know? I came up in the '60s and '70s through race riots. So that's no good.

CHANG: Strong comparison. Debbie, real quick, what's next in the trial?

ELLIOTT: Well, the defendants all just rested their cases moments ago, so that means this will now go to closing arguments and the jury. The judge has ordered everybody to come back Monday morning to proceed to that point. And a nearly all-white jury with the only Black member is going to begin its deliberations likely next week.

CHANG: That is NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thank you, Debbie.

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