All 3 white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery are sentenced to life in prison
Updated January 7, 2022 at 3:10 PM ET
Travis and Greg McMichael, who were convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia, have been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. William "Roddie" Bryan, who was also convicted in the case, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole — meaning he must serve at least 30 years before he's eligible for release.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley announced the sentences Friday, about six weeks after a jury found the men guilty of the high-profile killing that is widely seen as racially motivated. In early 2020, the men chased down and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was jogging through their neighborhood near Brunswick, along Georgia's coast.
Arbery's murder was "a tragedy on many, many levels," Walmsley said, adding that "a young man with dreams was gunned down in this community."
The judge sentenced Travis McMichael to life plus 20 years and Greg McMichael to life plus 20 years, with the additional punishment stemming from assault and false imprisonment charges. He sentenced Bryan to life plus 10 years — which would be suspended.
In an extraordinary moment in court, the judge interrupted his remarks to sit silently for one full minute — representing a fraction of the time, he said, that Arbery spent running for his life as the other men chased him for roughly five minutes. In considering the case, Walmsley said, he kept returning to "the terror" that must have been in Arbery's mind.
The judge's decision largely mirrors prosecutors' requests. His ruling came after Arbery's family delivered passionate requests for the three men to face the maximum penalty.
Attorneys for Travis McMichael, 35, his father Greg McMichael, 66, and their neighbor Bryan, 52, had asked for leniency during Friday's hearing. They have also previously said they will appeal their clients' guilty verdict.
Just before Walmsley delivered the sentence, he repeated the defendants' own words — what he called the "narrative" that Greg McMichael sought to establish about Arbery, including his repeated use of profanities to discuss the young man, even as he said he had no proof that Arbery had done anything wrong.
Arbery "was hunted down and shot," Walmsley said. And then the men who did it turned their backs and walked away, he added.
After the sentence was announced, the prosecution asked the court to impose a condition on the guilty parties, to bar them from using their experience to make money. The judge said he will review that request. Court was then adjourned.
Defense lawyers urged leniency, after Arbery's family asked for the maximum
Ahmaud Arbery's father, Marcus Arbery, told the court that the defendants had lynched his son in broad daylight, saying he wishes he could have saved Ahmaud from "their evil and hate."
The McMichaels and Bryan should think about what they did every day for the rest of their lives, Marcus Arbery said, adding, "and they should do it from behind bars, because me and my family, we've got to live with his death for the rest of our life."
Travis McMichael's attorney, Robert Rubin, said later that his client had acted without thinking, arguing that his actions against Arbery were not proof of "an abandoned and malignant heart."
And while prosecutors had pointed to a lack of remorse as additional reason for a stiff penalty, Rubin said McMichael could not express remorse while also facing the threat of a separate federal trial later this year.
Rubin argued that McMichael should be given the opportunity to change and seek redemption, rather than spending the rest of his life in prison.
Greg McMichael's defense attorney Laura Hogue said her client shouldn't face the maximum sentence, citing a lack of prior criminal history. She also argued that the prosecution hadn't proven aggravating circumstances that would warrant the stiffest sentence.
Hogue also cited the jury's verdict, which she said had found her client's role in Arbery's death stemmed from an "unintentional act." She noted that despite carrying a handgun that day, he never fired a shot at Arbery. His actions weren't motivated by hate, but by the urge to "get to the bottom" of Arbery's previous visits to a construction site in the Satilla Shores neighborhood.
Bryan's attorney, Kevin Gough, began his argument by saying he agrees with much of what the prosecution has said about the case, including mention of Bryan's cooperation with the investigation and the recommendation of a lesser sentence.
Like the McMichaels, Gough said, Bryan has no prior felony convictions. But he said his client's circumstances are very different from those of his fellow defendants. And he added that Bryan didn't know the McMichaels were armed.
"Roddie Bryan really had no idea of what was going on — or why — until after the tragic death of Mr. Arbery," Gough said.
Both of the McMichaels showed a "demonstrated pattern of vigilantism," Dunikowski said as she argued for them to be sent to prison for life without parole. Citing their experience with law enforcement, she added that the men "should have known better" than to arm themselves and pursue Arbery.
The sentencing hearing at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., began Friday morning and extended into the afternoon.
As the three men entered the courtroom, a pool report from inside the courtroom described the scene: "Greg McMichael looks noticeably nervous, he hugs and greets his attorneys but when seated has a trembling hand over his mouth."
Arbery's family delivered emotional victim impact statements
After Marcus Arbery spoke, Ahmaud's sister, Jasmine, smiled in court as she described her brother as a tall, athletic young man with a positive outlook and a sense of humor, who loved to run. But while he looked like her and other people she loves, she added, the defendants saw him as a threat.
"Ahmaud had a future that was taken from him in an instance of violence," Jasmine Arbery said as she wept. "He was robbed of his life pleasures, big and small. He will never be able to fulfill his professional dreams, nor will he be able to start a family, or even be a part of my daughter's life."
"The loss of Ahmaud has devastated me and my family," she said, "so I'm asking that the man that killed him be given the maximum sentence available to the court."
Ahmaud Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, began her impact statement by speaking directly to her son.
"This verdict doesn't bring you back, but it does help bring closure to this very difficult chapter of my life," she said. "I made a promise to you the day I laid you to rest. 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 that you were born. Raising you was the honor of my life, and I'm very proud of you."
Cooper-Jones told Walmsley that the defendants had lied about her son and her family and that because they showed no remorse, they don't deserve leniency.
"This wasn't a case of mistaken identity or mistaken fact," she said. "They chose to target my son because they didn't want him in their community. They chose to treat him differently than other people who frequently visited their community. And when they couldn't sufficiently scare him or intimidate him, they killed him."
During the trial, defense attorneys highlighted the condition of Arbery's feet and toenails. On Friday, his mother responded to those statements.
"He was messy, he sometimes refused to wear socks or take good care of his good clothing," Cooper-Jones said. "I wish he would have cut and cleaned his toenails before he went out for that jog that day. I guess he would have if he knew he would be murdered."
Noting that her son never spoke to or threatened the McMichaels or Bryan, Cooper-Jones added, "They were fully committed to their crimes — let them be fully committed for the consequences."
The men used pickup trucks to chase Arbery through their neighborhood
In February 2020, Travis and Greg McMichael pursued Arbery, who was Black, as he was out for a run through a residential neighborhood. They said they suspected he was responsible for a string of recent break-ins. Bryan joined in the chase, which the prosecutor said lasted five minutes. All three killers are white.
Bryan captured some of the confrontation on video, including the moment that Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery during a struggle. Footage of the killing became a key piece of evidence at trial.
All three defendants had pleaded not guilty.
Travis McMichael was found guilty of all nine counts against him, including one count of malice murder and four counts of felony murder. Greg McMichael was found not guilty of malice murder but was convicted on the other eight counts, including four counts of felony murder. Bryan was found guilty of six charges, including three felony murder counts.
They all faced a sentence of either life in prison or life in prison without the possibility of parole; prosecutors did not seek the death penalty in this case. Prosecutors previously said they would seek life in prison without parole for all three defendants.
The men also face a separate federal hate crimes trial later this year.
Who are the judge, prosecutors and defense?
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley presided over the trial at the Glynn County Courthouse. The Eastern Judicial Circuit judge was given the case after all five judges in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit recused themselves. Walmsley was appointed to the bench in February 2012.
Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski is the senior assistant district attorney in Cobb County, outside of Atlanta. She was put in charge of the case in April, after two local prosecutors recused themselves.
Defense attorney Kevin Gough of Brunswick has represented Bryan since his arrest. Attorney Jessica Burton of Atlanta is also on Bryan's defense team.
Defense attorneys Robert Rubin and Jason Sheffield represent Travis McMichael. They're from the same Atlanta-area law firm.
Defense attorneys Laura and Franklin Hogue, who are married, represent Greg McMichael. They're based in Macon, Ga., where they've handled numerous death-penalty cases.
The case was a flashpoint in the reckoning over racial justice
Although the murder occurred in February 2020, neither the McMichaels nor Bryan were immediately arrested. Only after the video footage recorded by Bryan was leaked online did authorities make any arrests until May, some 10 weeks after Arbery's death. There was a string of recusals from prosecutors with ties to Greg McMichael — a former police officer.
The video shows the McMichaels chasing Arbery through the Satilla Shores neighborhood. Travis McMichael was armed with a shotgun.
Defense attorneys said at trial that the McMichaels were trying to make a citizen's arrest of Arbery, who they suspected had burglarized several nearby homes. Surveillance video shows Arbery entering a home under construction several times, but no evidence was presented at the trial that he stole anything or that he had any involvement in any of the neighborhood break-ins or thefts.
The video shows Travis McMichael, who is standing outside of his white pickup truck, confront Arbery. The two get into a brief scuffle, and that's when McMichael shoots and kills Arbery, who was unarmed. At trial, McMichael testified that he fired in self-defense.
"They shot and killed him," lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said during closing arguments, "not because he was a threat to them, but because he wouldn't stop and talk to them."
Family members have called Arbery's murder a "modern-day lynching," and others have bemoaned that fact that it took the public release of Bryan's video for authorities to file charges.
"This case, by all accounts, should have been opened and closed ... the violent stalking and lynching of Ahmaud Arbery was documented for video for the world to witness," Ben Crump, a civil rights attorney, said in a statement after the verdict.
"But yet, because of the deep cracks, flaws, and biases in our systems, we were left to wonder if we would ever see justice," he added.
The video was released days before George Floyd was killed by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin and in the midst of continued protests for racial justice across the U.S.
At the state trial of the McMichaels and Bryan, there was no evidence of racial animus raised, but that is expected to be central to the upcoming federal hate crimes trial.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.