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Greg and Travis McMichael, William Bryan guilty of hate crimes in Ahmaud Arbery killing

Trial was the first connected to high-profile 2020 killings of Black Americans to focus squarely on race

Ahmaud Arbery's parents, Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery, celebrated after guilty verdicts came down in the federal hate crimes trial on Feb. 22. (Video: Reuters)
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A federal jury offered Ahmaud Arbery’s family and civil rights leaders another measure of justice Tuesday by convicting three White men of committing a hate crime when they chased and killed him — the first race-based conviction in any of the high-profile slayings of Black people that sparked mass protests in 2020.

The verdict came after just a few hours of deliberations, following a trial in Brunswick, Ga., that focused on a history of racist and offensive statements from Gregory McMichael, 66, Travis McMichael, 36, and William “Roddie” Bryan, 52.

Jurors found the men guilty of all the federal charges they faced: using force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race, and attempted kidnapping, for all three defendants; and a weapons violation for the McMichaels.

U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said she will determine their federal sentences in coming weeks.

The convictions represent a victory for President Biden’s Justice Department, which has vowed to more aggressively prosecute hate crimes, and for civil rights groups that have demanded greater accountability in racially motivated attacks against Black people and other minorities.

The federal government moved forward with the prosecution even after the men were convicted of murder in a state trial last fall and sentenced to life in prison — a risky decision that officials and activists said was necessary to deliver a broader message at a time when hate incidents and white nationalism are on the rise.

“No one in this country should have to fear the threat of hate-filled violence,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in Washington shortly after the verdict, reflecting on the nation’s history of racial attacks. “Throughout our history, and to this day, hate crimes have a singular impact because of the terror and fear they inflict on entire communities.”

In a tweet, Vice President Harris said the verdict cannot erase the Arbery family’s pain, but was “a measure of justice that holds these men accountable. It also reminds us of the work we have left to do.”

Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said on Feb. 22 that the three men previously convicted of murder were also found guilty of committing a hate crime. (Video: The Washington Post)

The emotion was palpable in the courtroom when Wood asked each juror to affirm their votes in favor of a conviction. The jury foreman, a Black man from Dublin, Ga., choked up as he said “yes,” tears flowing onto his face mask.

As the verdict was announced, Leigh McMichael — Gregory’s wife and Travis’s mother — tightly shook her head.

Marcus Arbery and Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud’s parents, celebrated after emerging from the courthouse raising their arms alongside civil rights attorney Ben Crump. Crump praised the Justice Department and Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, the head of the civil rights division, and said the conviction would ensure that Arbery’s life — and his slaying on Feb. 23, 2020 — would live on in history books.

“Tomorrow will be the two-year mark for when their son Ahmaud Arbery was lynched for jogging while Black,” Crump said. “These parents joined a fraternity that no parent wants to be a member of — and with such dignity. They stood up for Ahmaud to say that Ahmaud’s life mattered, that Ahmaud Arbery will never be forgotten.”

In a powerful rejoinder, Cooper-Jones chided Justice officials for having sought to secure a plea deal with the McMichaels, an agreement that Arbery’s parents opposed and Wood rejected three weeks ago. The family had urged federal prosecutors not to move forward with the deal, insisting that only a jury trial would amount to justice.

“They didn’t have a son that was lying in a cold grave, and they still didn’t hear my cry,” Cooper-Jones said. “What the DOJ did today, they were made to do today.”

“It’s been a very long, stressful fight,” she continued. “As a mom, I will never heal.”

Justice officials have said they pursued the plea deal only after the family’s lawyers consented. Asked about Cooper-Jones’s criticism, Garland, too, grew emotional. “I cannot imagine the pain a mother feels to have her son run down and gunned down while taking a jog down a public street,” he said. “My heart goes out to her and her family.”

The federal trial hinged on proving the defendants’ state of mind when they chased and confronted Arbery, before Travis McMichael shot him with a shotgun. Prosecutors argued that the men’s prejudice helped explain why they erroneously viewed the 25-year-old as a potential criminal.

The government presented evidence from 20 witnesses, many of whom relayed searing text messages, social media posts and remarks from the three men in which they expressed hatred of and bigotry toward Black people.

Among the examples: Bryan did not want his daughter dating a Black man and called him the n-word in a text message; Gregory McMichael shared a meme that claimed “White Irish slaves were treated worse than any other race in the U.S."; Travis spoke about killing Black people and wrote in a message that he loved his job because “zero n-----s work with me.”

“All three defendants told you loud and clear, in their own words, how they feel about African Americans,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons told the jury, made up of eight White people, three Black people and one Hispanic person.

Racial slurs, violent texts: How Ahmaud Arbery's killers talked about Black people

Defense lawyers maintained that the men were trying to stop and question Arbery not because of his race, but because the McMichaels suspected him of trespassing at a neighbor’s property in their coastal Georgia subdivision.

Neighbors, including the McMichaels, had seen surveillance videos of a man, later identified as Arbery, exploring the property several times in the weeks leading up to the shooting.

Gregory McMichael recognized Arbery as he jogged past McMichaels’ house, defense lawyers said, prompting the former police officer and his son to chase him in a pickup truck. Bryan, a neighbor, joined the chase in his own truck after witnessing the commotion.

After the verdict, Lyons hugged Arbery’s family and embraced Skylar Barnes, the lead FBI agent on the case. Both he and Lyons are African American. Lyons was heard whispering to one of her co-counsel that the verdict was personal for her, as the mother of a Black son. Barnes hugged the other FBI agents in the room and pronounced the outcome a “great victory for a great team.”

Several Black residents who gathered outside the courthouse in Brunswick said they believed justice was delivered.

“We knew we had people like that in our town, but they aren’t the majority,” Johnny Lawrence, a retiree, said of the defendants. “This puts us on a path toward progress and a better life.”

Tameika Johnson, 31, a nurse at the local hospital who stopped by on her lunch break, said: “Justice is long overdue for our small town. This caused so much pain for all of us.”

Arbery trial highlights casual racism — and everyday gun culture in Georgia community

Arbery was killed on a Sunday afternoon while jogging through the streets of Satilla Shores, a coastal subdivision. The McMichaels were armed; Bryan was not.

The investigation into the killing was marred by dysfunction from the start. Then-Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself because the elder McMichael had worked as an investigator in her office. She has since been accused of showing favoritism toward Gregory McMichael and directing that his son should not be arrested. In September, she was charged with violating her oath of office.

Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, who took over the case, indicated that he viewed Arbery as a “criminal suspect” whose shooting was “perfectly legal.” Barnhill later stepped aside after it was revealed that his son had worked with the elder McMichael in Johnson’s office.

Not until a video of Arbery’s killing, which Bryan recorded on his cellphone, was made public by a local radio station in May 2020 did prosecutors file murder charges against the three men.

Prosecutors did not make race a central focus of the state murder trial in November.

Justice Department officials, who had announced a grand jury indictment last April, elected to move forward with the hate-crimes prosecution despite the murder convictions, which left only Bryan eligible for parole and only after 30 years.

The case took another dramatic turn last month when the Arbery family publicly opposed the proposed plea deal for the McMichaels, because it included a provision that would have allowed the men to serve the first 30 years of their sentence in federal prison rather than state prison.

Legal experts said prosecutors probably were open to the deal because hate crimes cases can be difficult to win, and a guilty plea would eliminate the possibility of an acquittal. But Arbery’s parents said they wanted their son’s killers to serve time in Georgia state prisons — which they viewed as offering harsher conditions.

Without the plea deal, the men are expected to serve their sentences in state prison even with the federal convictions, officials said.

Outside the courthouse on Tuesday morning, Arbery’s mother — like Crump — said the outcome of the case would help her son’s legacy endure.

“Ahmaud will continue to rest in peace,” Cooper-Jones said, “but he will now begin to rest in power.”

Coker reported from Brunswick, Ga. Hannah Knowles and Matt Zapotosky in Washington contributed to this report.