Three White men who chased and murdered 25-year-old Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia were sentenced to life in prison Friday.
Travis McMichael, 35, his father, Gregory McMichael, 66, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, were convicted in November on a raft of charges, including felony murder, for Arbery’s death.
Judge Timothy Walmsley sentenced Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He sentenced Bryan to life in prison with the possibility of parole. Bryan, who is 52 years old, will be eligible for parole under Georgia law only after he has served 30 years in prison because he was convicted of serious violent felonies.
Before handing down the sentence, Walmsley described the killing in a neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, as a “chilling, truly disturbing scene,” telling the court he “kept coming back to the terror that must have been in the mind of the young man running through Satilla Shores.”
Arbery’s mother and father cried as the sentences were handed down, according to a pool reporter present.
Earlier that morning, Cooper-Jones delivered a victim impact statement aimed at achieving a stiffer sentence, asking the judge to impose the maximum sentence.
“I made a promise to you the day I laid you to rest,” she said, speaking directly to her late son. “I told you I love you, and someday, somehow, I would get you justice.”
“Son, I love you as much today as I did the day you were born. Raising you was the honor of my life, and I’m very proud of you.”
Though murder is punishable by death in Georgia, lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski on Friday asked for life sentences for all three men.
For Travis McMichael, the state asked for life in prison without the possibility of parole and the maximum sentence for two additional felony charges of aggravated assault and criminal attempt to commit a felony, totaling 25 years.
For Gregory McMichael, the state asked for life in prison without the possibility of parole and the maximum sentence for three additional felony charges of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony, totaling 35 years.
Dunikoski asked the court to impose the McMichaels’ sentences on the other counts to run concurrently, or at the same time, as the life sentence without parole for murder.
For Bryan, the state asked for life in prison with parole and the maximum sentence for two additional felony charges of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony, totaling 15 years. The state is asking that the 15 years be served on probation.
According to Georgia law, even if Judge Walmsley permits parole, it won’t be considered for 30 years. Walmsley may consider other factors, such as Travis McMichael being the one who shot Arbery.
In his own statement, Marcus Arbery Sr., Arbery’s father, noted Travis McMichael had been able to sit in the courtroom with his father every day — something Arbery Sr. will never do again.
“I’ll never get that chance to sit next to my son ever again. Not at a dinner table, not at a holiday,” he said Friday.
“My heart is broken, and always will be broken,” he said. “If I could I’d have (traded) places with Ahmaud in a heartbeat. But I can’t. So I’m standing here today to do what he can’t, and that is to fight for him, fight for his memory, his legacy, and to tell you who he was.”
No matter the sentences, the sprawling legal saga isn’t over: The men’s attorneys say they’ll appeal the verdicts; a federal hate crime trial is slated for next month; Arbery’s mother has filed a civil lawsuit; and the original prosecutor faces charges over her alleged handling of the case.
Decades in prison loom
In arguing for leniency for his client, attorney Robert Rubin characterized Travis McMichael as a “devoted father” and “hard worker” who thought he was doing the right thing for his community at the time of Arbery’s killing.
“Nothing in Travis McMichael’s life suggests that he’s a danger to society now, or will be a danger to society 30 years from now after he has time to think, to work, to grow,” Rubin said. “When he’s in his 60s, older than me right now, do we still need, want a person like Travis McMichael behind bars?”
“The urge to seek vengeance is strong and understandable in the family,” Rubin said, adding he would do the same if he was in their position. “But vengeance is not the foundation of our sentencing in our criminal justice system — redemption is.”
Greg McMichael’s attorney Laura Hogue similarly asked for life with parole for her client, arguing he was a good man and Arbery’s death was an unintended consequence of his actions.
“If life without parole is a sentence that is held for only the worst of the worst, it simply can’t be a sentence for a person who never intended that tragic result that took place on February 23, (2020),” she said.
Attorney Kevin Gough distinguished Bryan, his client, from the McMichaels. Bryan did not know what was happening when he joined the pursuit of Arbery, Gough argued, nor did he have a weapon with him. And after Arbery was dead, he cooperated with law enforcement, Gough said.
“I think it is readily clear that while Mr. Bryan has disputed and continues to dispute whether things that he did that day constituted crimes, he has never questioned the tragedy of this death,” Gough said.
Cooper-Jones hopes Travis McMichael receives a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole, she told CNN Friday. And while each of the defendants will have the opportunity to speak Friday, Cooper-Jones said she doesn’t want to hear from any of them. “There is nothing that they can tell me today that would make me feel better.”
The men believed Arbery had committed a crime February 23, 2020, in their Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick, they told police. The McMichaels were armed and gave chase, and Bryan later joined the pursuit, recording it from his pickup. Bryan’s video shows Travis McMichael exit his truck and confront Arbery, who tussles with Travis over a shotgun before the younger McMichael fatally shoots him.
The McMichaels claimed they were conducting a citizen’s arrest and acting in self-defense. Bryan said he took no part in the killing. Authorities made no immediate arrests. The men were so confident in their defense, they had Bryan’s video released to the public in May 2020, according to criminal defense attorney Alan Tucker.
It helped spell their undoing. The 36-second video sparked outrage that soon dovetailed with outcries over the killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.
The McMichaels were arrested two days after the video went viral. Bryan was arrested two weeks after the McMichaels. The men pleaded not guilty.
At trial, prosecutor Dunikoski ripped holes in the self-defense and citizen’s arrest claims, emphasizing Travis McMichael acknowledged never seeing Arbery armed and never hearing Arbery threaten anyone. She pointed out inconsistencies between his testimony and what he initially told investigators, spurring him to testify he was “mixed up” and traumatized when police arrived.
Dunikoski pointedly questioned how Arbery could be an aggressor when he was unarmed on foot and repeatedly tried to elude three men, two of them armed, in trucks.
Travis McMichael was convicted on all counts: malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony. His father was convicted on all counts except malice murder, and Bryan was found guilty of all charges aside from malice murder, one felony murder count and one aggravated assault count.
Appeals coming, defense lawyers say
With the death penalty off the table, each murder conviction commands a sentence of life in prison, with or without parole. Maximum sentences are 20 years for aggravated assault, 10 years for false imprisonment and five years for attempt to commit a felony.
In addition to parole eligibility, Walmsley will decide if the men serve their sentences all at once, or consecutively, meaning they must finish each sentence before beginning the next.
Following the verdicts, Travis McMichael’s attorneys said their client is “sorry for what happened to Ahmaud Arbery,” and they plan to appeal. One of the father’s attorneys, Laura Hogue, was “floored” by the verdict and intends to appeal, she said. Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, said he feels “appellate courts will reverse this conviction.”
Race was a steady factor, and not solely because of the defendants’ and Arbery’s skin tones. Walmsley expressed concern about the jury’s makeup, and Gough and Hogue were accused of making insensitive remarks, with the latter accused of dehumanizing Arbery by raising his “long, dirty toenails” during closing arguments.
During jury selection, Gough complained of a dearth of older White men without college degrees. Glynn County is 69% White and 27% Black.
Race could be a component of the appeals process, as Gough repeatedly called for mistrials because prominent Black pastors accompanied the family in the courtroom and attended a “Prayer Wall” outside the courthouse during trial.
Dunikoski alleged Gough’s complaints about Black pastors in the courtroom led to the Prayer Wall.
“That is good lawyering right there because now he’s motioned for a mistrial based on something that he caused,” she said. Later, Dunikoski added Gough “intentionally and strategically, I believe, did what he did in an effort to attempt to insert potentially some error into the case in case he lost the case and it went up on appeal.”
Many more court dates to come
The defendants have maintained their innocence on federal hate crime charges, including interference with rights and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels were also charged with using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence; and Travis McMichael was charged with discharging a firearm.
Federal prosecutors say the defendants “used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.”
“We are deeply disappointed that the Justice Department bought the false narrative that the media and state prosecutors have promulgated,” Travis McMichael’s defense team said.
The federal trial is scheduled for February 7, one month after the men’s sentencing. Because they’ve remained at Glynn County Detention Center since their arrest, there’s been no federal bond hearing. If convicted on the weapons charges or interference with rights counts, they face additional penalties of up to life in prison with possible six-figure fines.
Federal prosecutors asked Arbery’s mother if she would consider a plea deal for the men who killed her son, her attorney told CNN Friday. She declined.
Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mom, has also filed a civil lawsuit targeting the men and police and prosecutorial officials. Among the officials is former District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who lost her November 2020 reelection bid after a decade overseeing the five-county circuit.
Following Arbery’s shooting, Gregory McMichael called Johnson, for whom he worked as an investigator until 2019, saying he needed advice. Glynn County police officers who responded to the scene also reached out to Johnson for advice. No one was arrested for two and a half months.
Johnson was indicted in September on counts of violating her oath of office and hindering law enforcement. She’s accused of directing officers not to arrest Travis McMichael, “contrary to the laws of said State” and “showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation,” according to the indictment. She recused herself from the case the day after the killing, citing her connection to Gregory McMichael.
CNN’s attempts to reach Johnson have been unsuccessful. She denied any wrongdoing in an October 2020 debate during her reelection campaign, saying, “It is a tragedy for the family. I’m sorry how things happened. I’m sorry that a lie got started and I could not turn it back.”
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