BRUNSWICK, Ga. — The three White men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery in coastal Georgia last year were convicted of murder Wednesday in a case that many saw as a test of racial bias in the justice system.
Arbery’s mother wept when the verdict came back after less than two days of deliberations. His father leaped from his seat to cheer. Black fathers rushed to the courthouse with their sons, while lawmakers and civil rights leaders hailed justice even as they said it was hard-won.
“This is a very consequential day, not just for Ahmaud Arbery but for families all over America,” said Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights lawyer for Arbery’s family who also represented the family of George Floyd. “We have to show that America must be better than what we saw in that video.”
A prosecutor initially found the defendants justified in killing Arbery, saying they were carrying out a “citizen’s arrest” for neighborhood break-ins when Travis McMichael shot in self-defense.
For more than two months, Arbery’s family pushed for consequences in vain. Then a leaked video of the Feb. 23, 2020, killing thrust the case into the national spotlight, weeks before Floyd’s murder by a White police officer in Minneapolis ignited mass protests against police brutality and racism.
That national conversation hung over the trial, which stretched more than five weeks, as lawyers fought over the courtroom presence of Black civil rights leaders and selected a nearly all-White jury over the prosecution’s protests. For many, the trial took on even more weight after the acquittal last week of Kyle Rittenhouse. The White teenager successfully argued that he shot three people — killing two — in self-defense after driving to Kenosha, Wis., to help protect businesses when protests over the police shooting of a Black man turned destructive.
Prosecutors portrayed the Georgia defendants as dangerous vigilantes who cornered an unarmed man with their pickup trucks in suburban Satilla Shores. “This isn’t the Wild West,” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told jurors, saying that the accused jumped to assumptions about a “Black man running down the street.”
Lawyers for the defendants said the men pursued Arbery not because of his race but because they suspected him of burglary. The younger McMichael testified last week that he felt compelled to shoot in self-defense when Arbery ran at him, struck him and grabbed his shotgun.
Arbery died because he “chose to fight,” defense lawyer Laura Hogue said in her closing. At one point she emphasized that Arbery had “long dirty toenails,” drawing gasps in the courtroom and denunciations from Arbery’s family.
Defense lawyers said Wednesday that they would appeal the verdicts after sentencing. Throughout the trial, they clashed with the judge over admissible evidence and sought mistrials — arguing at times that gallery outbursts, courtroom guests and outside demonstrators had compromised their clients’ rights.
Jason Sheffield, who represents Travis McMichael, said in an interview Wednesday that the McMichaels “truly believe they were doing the right thing to protect their neighbors and friends.”
He also acknowledged “the joy and celebration of the Arbery family, where they finally have this tragedy be recognized.”
All three defendants were also found guilty of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and attempt to falsely imprison. Bryan and the elder McMichael were acquitted of malice murder.
Ruby Arbery, Ahmaud Arbery’s aunt, said she “felt something lift off her.”
“All the pain, all the hurt, it lifted because I knew we got justice,” said Arbery, 53. “We finally got justice for my nephew.”
A bipartisan uproar over Arbery’s killing eventually spurred changes to Georgia law and a criminal indictment for the first prosecutor to touch the case. The verdict drew immediate reactions Wednesday from lawmakers, who praised the ruling but also called for criminal justice reform and said there was more work to be done. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.) called the verdict accountability but not “true justice,” saying that real justice “looks like a Black man not having to worry about being harmed — or killed — while on a jog.”
President Biden, who once compared the killing to a lynching, called Arbery’s killing “a devastating reminder of how far we have to go in the fight for racial justice in this country.” Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) said in a statement that Arbery “was the victim of a vigilantism that has no place in Georgia.”
John Perry, a Black pastor and former president of the Brunswick NAACP chapter, said much has already changed in Glynn County. The community of about 85,000 got its first Black police chief and voted in a new district attorney after Arbery’s killing. Of the verdict, he said: “Our system isn’t perfect, it’s in need of a lot of tweaking, but this proves that it’s not totally broken.”
Arbery’s family once fought for legal consequences of any kind.
“Back in 2020, I never thought this day would come,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said outside the courthouse Wednesday. Now, she said, her son could rest in peace.
The violence at the center of the trial unfolded on Feb. 23, 2020, when the McMichaels spotted Arbery running past their house and took off after him in their truck. The defendants said they recognized Arbery as the person who had entered an under-construction home nearby several times in the months leading up the shooting, often in the evening — incidents captured on surveillance video. Travis McMichael said he had encountered Arbery at the property earlier that month and reported the incident to police.
Video footage did not show Arbery taking anything from the property, which police told the McMichaels. No stolen items were found on his body. But Travis McMichael testified that he suspected Arbery of theft after hearing that things had gone missing from the property.
Bryan’s stated reason for joining the McMichaels as they chased Arbery past his home was less clear. He was not aware of the surveillance video, according to testimony, and Travis McMichael told the jury he did not know Bryan.
“I figured he had done something wrong,” Bryan told authorities last year, saying he sought to photograph Arbery. “I didn’t know for sure.” Bryan’s lawyer has maintained that he was only a witness to the shooting, noting that Bryan did not bring his rifle along.
Prosecutors said the defendants chased Arbery for five minutes, culminating in the moments captured on the viral video.
The footage, which Bryan filmed on his cellphone, shows Arbery running down the road ahead of Bryan, toward the McMichaels and their parked truck. Arbery passes the vehicle and then turns and runs toward Travis McMichael, who is holding a shotgun.
Dunikoski, the prosecutor, zeroed in last week on the moment when Travis McMichael trained his gun on Arbery. At that point, the defendant confirmed, Arbery had not made any verbal threats or shown any weapon. He did not say a word the whole encounter, Travis McMichael testified.
“All he’s done is run away from you. … And you pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at him,” the prosecutor said.
Travis McMichael said he pointed the gun to “deter” Arbery from continuing toward him, citing his Coast Guard training on use of force and de-escalation tactics.
In the video, the truck obscures the men’s movements as the first shot fires.
“I knew that he was on me,” Travis McMichael told the jury. “I knew that I was losing this.”
Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute at the time required “immediate knowledge” of a crime or “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion” of someone fleeing a felony offense. The law was significantly narrowed in the wake of Arbery’s death, a testament to the bipartisan backlash the killing inspired. Arbery’s case also led Georgia legislators to pass a hate crimes law.
For 74 days, there were no arrests in Arbery’s case. The first prosecutor recused herself but was indicted this year on allegations she helped protect the defendants, allegedly instructing police not to arrest Travis McMichael. The second prosecutor argued against charges even as he, too, recused himself under pressure from Arbery’s family.
After the May 2020 leak of the video — which had been in police possession for months — the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case and announced arrests.
Supporters of Arbery’s family expressed confidence throughout the trial that the jury would convict, and Arbery’s mother said last week that Bryan’s lawyer had sought a last-minute plea deal that prosecutors turned down.
Kevin Gough, Bryan’s attorney, said he would file a motion for a new trial next week.
“We are very disappointed with the verdict obviously, but we have to respect that verdict,” Gough said. “That is the American way.”
Rittenhouse’s acquittal in Wisconsin only added to the significance many placed on Arbery’s case. Prosecutors had called Rittenhouse a vigilante with an AR-15 rifle who instigated the situation.
Prosecutors in Arbery’s case had argued that if anyone had a right to self-defense, it was Arbery — chased for five minutes and threatened by strangers. Some warned that acquittals for the man who shot Arbery would harden the view that there are two justice systems in the United States.
The jury of 11 White people and one Black man also stoked fears of a not-guilty verdict.
“After the Rittenhouse verdict, I was discouraged and I was afraid,” said Jason Lewis, 38, who was raised in Brunswick. “This verdict by 11 White people reaffirms that justice in America is still real.”
Eugene Scott and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.
Nearly all-White jury in Arbery killing highlights long-standing fears of racial bias in jury selection