The three White men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery nearly two years ago in a case that sparked nationwide outrage and protests, were sentenced Friday to life in prison, two of them without the possibility of parole.
“A resident of Glynn County, a graduate of Brunswick High, a son, a brother, a young man with dreams was gunned down in this community,” Judge Timothy Walmsley said before pronouncing the sentences. “As we understand it, he left his home apparently to go for a run, and he ended up running for his life.”
The courtroom was still as Walmsley paused for a minute of silence — a fraction of the five minutes Arbery ran before he was cornered and shot. Walmsley said he “kept coming back to the terror” Arbery must have felt as he was chased through the neighborhood of Satilla Shores in the coastal Georgia community.
Prosecutors sought to remove the possibility of parole for the McMichaels, but not for Bryan, and the judge agreed. He said that Bryan demonstrated early on that he “had grave concerns that what had occurred should not have occurred,” while the McMichaels “turned their backs” and “walked away” after Arbery fell bleeding to the street.
The judge noted how Greg McMichael told police that they had Arbery “trapped like a rat.” Then, Walmsley said, there was the “absolutely chilling” moment captured on video when Travis McMichael pointed his shotgun at Arbery, who was caught between two trucks.
He echoed prosecutors’ condemnations of vigilantism and seemed to rebuke the McMichaels’ defense that they suspected Arbery of theft in a neighborhood on-edge about crime.
“The most violent crime in Satilla Shores was the murder of Ahmaud Arbery,” Walmsley said.
Activists and civil rights leaders praised the men’s convictions in November as hard-won justice in the case, which saw no arrests until more than two months after Arbery’s death. The three men were charged only after Bryan’s cellphone video of the event went viral, thrusting the killing into the national spotlight and leaving many outraged at a justice system that they said showed little care for Black lives.
Georgia law prescribes a minimum sentence of life in prison for murder, which left the question of parole up to Walmsley. Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty. All three men were convicted of felony murder, or committing felonies that caused Arbery’s death.
Travis McMichael, now 35, was also convicted of malice murder, which requires intent to kill, but faced the same punishment as his 66-year-old father and 52-year-old Bryan.
In Georgia, those serving life sentences for serious violent crimes such as murder are not considered for parole until they have served 30 years.
Arbery’s family, their attorneys and advocates hailed the sentences as another victory, while also saying they will continue to seek accountability for the killings of other Black Americans.
Friday’s sentencing showed the results of “sustained movements for justice,” said Ben Crump, an attorney for Arbery’s father. Civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, who attended the trial, said in a statement that the sentencing “shows us that even in the Deep South, with 11 White jurors and only one Black juror, that White men can now be sentenced to life in prison for killing a Black man, something unimaginable not long ago.”
Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said Friday that the McMichaels should not be able to seek parole because they showed “thoughtlessness” and a “demonstrated pattern of vigilantism,” arming up and pursuing dangerous confrontations rather than calling the authorities first. Members of Arbery’s family took the stand to tearfully urge the maximum penalty for all involved.
“Ahmaud never said a word to them,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said to the court. “He never threatened them. He just wanted to be left alone. They were fully committed to the crimes — let them be fully committed for the consequences.”
Defense lawyers called the McMichaels first-time offenders who deserved leniency because they did not set out on that day in February 2020 to kill Arbery. Bob Rubin, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, argued that his client should be given the chance to prove himself worthy of release some decades later. He highlighted the younger McMichael’s young son and past service in the Coast Guard.
“The urge to seek vengeance is strong and understandable in the family,” Rubin said. “Lord knows, if I was in their position, I would be seeking the same thing. But vengeance is not the foundation of our sentencing, in our criminal justice system. Redemption is.”
Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, said his client was unarmed, expressed remorse and cooperated with authorities in 2020, turning over video footage and retracing the path of the chase with an investigator.
Lawyers for the defendants, who plan to appeal their conviction, argued that their clients had legal grounds to apprehend Arbery on suspicion of burglary. They said the McMichaels and Bryan sought to perform a “citizen’s arrest” and that Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense.
During their trial, Travis McMichael testified that Arbery struck him and grabbed his gun, leading him to fear for his life in the final moments of the cellphone footage that went viral in spring of 2020. A truck obscures the first part of their confrontation in the video.
At the trial, Dunikoski urged the jury to be skeptical of Travis McMichael’s story, which differed from his early account to police in some key details.
“All he’s done is run away from you,” she told Travis McMichael during cross-examination. “ … And you pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at him.”
The McMichaels and Bryan were also each convicted of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony. The McMichaels were both sentenced to life in prison plus 20 years; Bryan was given a suspended sentence, meaning that if he is released from prison he would serve further time on probation.
The judge’s decision will not mark the end of the widely watched case.
The first district attorney to handle the case faces rare criminal charges on allegations that she showed bias and instructed against arrest. And the role of race in Arbery’s killing will take center stage next month when the McMichaels and Bryan go to trial on the federal hate-crime charges.
Just before Friday’s hearing, Lee Merritt, an attorney for Cooper-Jones, told reporters that prosecutors approached Arbery’s mother to ask whether she would consider a plea deal involving 30 years’ imprisonment for the federal charges. Cooper-Jones rejected the idea, he said. After sentencing, Merritt and Crump affirmed that the family has no desire to negotiate, and said the federal trial will be a welcome opportunity to explicitly confront the role racism played in the defendants’ actions.
“We get to have the real record out about their hate, about the hatred that drove these individuals. That story has to be told,” said activist and lawyer Barbara Arnwine, who attended the trial and sentencing. “Because how can America ever get over hate if we don’t confront it?”
Barry Paschal, a spokesperson for the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of Georgia, said Justice Department guidelines prevent officials from “discussing anything related to pleas.”
Prosecutors implied in the fall that the McMichaels and Bryan targeted Arbery in part because of his race and jumped to conclusions about a man they suspected of break-ins. But officials did not seek to prove a motive, and during the trial did not use texts and social media posts offered early in the case as evidence that the defendants were racist.
The federal indictment charges the McMichaels and Bryan with interference with Arbery’s rights and attempted kidnapping. Specifically, it alleges 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.”
Arbery’s family said he was out jogging on Feb. 23, 2020, the day he was killed. The shooting occurred less than two miles from his home.
Defense lawyers, however, pointed to surveillance footage of Arbery entering an under-construction property in their clients’ neighborhood of Satilla Shores — incidents they said had put residents on edge. Arbery was in the unfinished home just before the shooting and also a few times in the months leading up to it.
Travis McMichael testified that he suspected Arbery of theft after hearing that things went missing from the home. But surveillance footage never showed Arbery taking anything, and he was not found with any stolen items.
Greg McMichael told police that he spotted Arbery running past his house that day in February 2020, and went to tell his son. Then, he said, they grabbed their guns and drove after him. Bryan joined in his own vehicle after watching the McMichaels chase Arbery past his porch. “I figured he had done something wrong,” Bryan later told authorities. Bryan was recording with his cellphone when the chase turned deadly.
In court Friday, Arbery’s sister remembered him as a jokester who loved to run. His mother recalled a “loving baby who seemed to never tire of hugs, cuddling and kisses.”
After the sentencings, Cooper-Jones said authorities who initially dismissed Arbery’s killing did not realize how people would rally behind her, so that she did not have to fight a “long hard fight” alone.
“I knew that today would come,” she said.