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Testimony begins in the murder trial for the death of Ahmaud Arbery

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

After nearly three weeks of jury selection, lawyers presented their opening statements today in the racially fueled murder trial of three white men charged in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. The 25-year-old Black man was shot to death last year while jogging down a residential road. A nearly all-white jury is hearing the case.

NPR's Debbie Elliott has been at the courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., today and joins us now. And Debbie, you've been following this for some time. Give us the context. Who are these defendants?

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael and then one of their neighbors, William "Roddie" Bryan - the three are charged with murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment for chasing Ahmaud Arbery in pickup trucks, cornering him and then shooting him to death on February 23 of 2020. Arrest did not come until cell phone video of the killing was leaked. And it was recorded by the defendant, Bryan, and drew the national attention to this case.

CORNISH: Prosecutors were, of course, the first to present their case. How did they begin?

ELLIOTT: Well, you know, they're using that video - that's very central to their case - along with 911 phone calls and police bodycam videos. In her opening statement, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski highlighted what she described as a series of driveway decisions that took a young man's life; decisions the defendants made based on their assumptions that Ahmaud Arbery didn't belong in the Satilla Shores neighborhood where they lived.

They had previously seen him walking into a house under construction there. And on the day he was killed, she says, they saw him running down the street, grabbed their guns and gave chase. She played the cell phone video showing how the three men trapped him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LINDA DUNIKOSKI: Mr. Arbery's under attack. He's being driven forward by Mr. Bryan in his pickup truck. He's running away from this pickup truck that's already tried to hit him four times toward McMichaels. Travis McMichael is out of the car with his shotgun.

ELLIOTT: She said the medical examiner will testify that the first close-range blast from the shotgun was fatal.

CORNISH: How did defense attorneys respond?

ELLIOTT: Well, first, there's no disputing that the men chased Arbery and that Travis McMichael killed him. Defense lawyers say the trial is really about why. They argue that the men were justified because this was a neighborhood on edge after a series of property thefts. They had seen surveillance video of Arbery at the house under construction four different times at night and had been on the lookout for him.

Travis McMichael's attorney, Robert Rubin, said his client had confronted Arbery on the site a time before and saw Arbery reach into his pocket. So McMichael thought he was armed, and that's why he reacted as he did when Arbery tried to fight back when he was running between those pickup trucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERT RUBIN: And within a split second, Ahmaud Arbery makes a left and is on Travis such that Travis has no choice but to fire his weapon in self-defense. When they collide, he's on Travis, and Travis has to fire because at that point, it's his life or Ahmaud Arbery's life.

ELLIOTT: So the defense is that these men were trying to make a citizen's arrest that turned tragic when Arbery fought back.

CORNISH: This was also the first day the jury was able to hear testimony. What was put before them?

ELLIOTT: You know, the first witness was Glynn County Police Officer William Duggan, one of the first to respond to the scene. He testified that when he asked Travis McMichael if he was OK, he responded, no, I'm not OK. I just F-ing killed somebody. And then the state played this graphic bodycam video that shows him over Arbery's bloodied body. It was difficult to see.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott at the Glynn County Courthouse.

Thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.