The three men already convicted and sentenced to life in prison for killing Ahmaud Arbery were given decades more behind bars Monday for federal hate-crime violations — and told they must serve their time in state prison, which they contend will be far more dangerous for them.
Amy Lee Copeland, the attorney for Travis McMichael, 36, said he has received hundreds of threats and faced “an effective backdoor death penalty” if sent to Georgia state prison — a system that Copeland noted is under federal investigation for alleged violent and deplorable conditions.
But Arbery’s family vehemently opposed allowing his killers to choose where they would be incarcerated, noting that the young Black man who was gunned down while jogging in February 2020 will never be able to make choices about his life again.
“How can you ask for mercy? You didn’t give my boy no mercy,” Marcus Arbery said as he asked U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood to hand down the “stiffest penalty that the court allows.”
The pursuit and killing of Ahmaud Arbery, 25, became part of the impassioned debate over racial injustice spurred by the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville that same year. President Biden’s Justice Department has pursued federal civil rights charges in all three cases, convicting the officers involved in Floyd’s killing in December and February, and charging officers involved in the raid that led to Taylor’s death last week.
“Hate crimes have no place in our country,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement after Monday’s sentencings. “Protecting civil rights and combatting white supremacist violence was a founding purpose of the Justice Department, and one that we will continue to pursue with the urgency it demands.”
The McMichaels and Bryan, all of whom are White, received life sentences on state murder charges following their November 2021 convictions, with no possibility of parole for the McMichaels. Their federal trial, earlier this year, presented evidence about past racist and offensive statements by each of the defendants.
They were convicted of attempted kidnapping and violently interfering with Arbery’s right to use a public street because he was Black. The McMichaels were also convicted of a federal weapons violation.
On Monday, Godbey Wood sentenced Travis McMichael to an additional life sentence, plus 10 years for the weapons charge, and Gregory McMichael, 66, to an additional life sentence, plus seven years for the weapons charge; both men were also sentenced to 20 years for attempted kidnapping, to be served concurrent to the life sentence.
Bryan, 52, who was convicted of all but the weapons violation, was handed a 35-year federal sentence.
Godbey Wood said the state sentence takes precedence since it was imposed first. That means the McMichaels will probably spend the rest of their lives in state prison, and Bryan — who was given the possibility of parole with his state-level life sentence — will probably be incarcerated for decades. All three men have two weeks to appeal.
Bryan’s attorney urged the judge to give him a lesser sentence, noting that while Gregory McMichael told his son to pursue Arbery, and Travis McMichael did so and pulled the trigger, Bryan joined but did not initiate the chase and was not armed.
Bryan’s decision to pursue Arbery after seeing the chase underway was a “snap judgment” decision rather than one motivated by racism against a Black man, said the attorney, J. Pete Theodocion.
Godbey Wood said that while she didn’t hand Bryan the maximum possible sentence, 35 years was no slap on the wrist.
“By the time you serve your federal sentence, you will be close to 90 years old,” she told Bryan. “But again, Mr. Arbery never got a chance to be 26.”
Arbery, an avid jogger, was out for a run when the McMichaels and Bryan chased him in pickup trucks and then killed him in Satilla Shores, a neighborhood just outside of Brunswick, Ga., on Feb. 23, 2020.
The case drew little national attention until video of the shooting was released that May. Arbery’s family expressed fears early on that the case was being covered up and would be forgotten; 74 days passed before anyone was criminally charged.
The delay was partly because the case wound its way through four different state prosecutors. Two recused themselves because they had previously worked with Gregory McMichael, a former Glynn County police officer.
The first of those two, former Glynn County district attorney Jackie Johnson, was eventually charged with using her position to delay the arrests of Arbery’s killers. The second, Waycross District Attorney George E. Barnhill, declined to bring charges in Arbery’s death before his recusal.
After the trio were convicted and sentenced in state court, federal prosecutors offered a plea deal to the McMichaels in hopes of avoiding the expense and uncertainty of a federal civil rights trial.
Under the terms of the deal, the father and son, who had both denied in their state murder trial that race was a factor in their actions, would have to admit under oath that they killed Arbery because he was Black. In exchange, they would serve 30 years in federal — not state — prison.
But the deal fell apart at the last minute, after Arbery’s family strongly rejected the idea of letting the young man’s killers choose where they would do their time.
“Granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement will defeat me,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said in court in January. “It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son.”
In court filings before Monday’s sentencing, Gregory McMichael raised safety concerns similar to his son’s in seeking to serve his time in a federal facility; such facilities also tend to have better amenities, including health care.
Speaking to Arbery’s family Monday, he said: “I’m sure that my words mean very little to you, but I want to assure you I never wanted any of this to happen. There was no malice in my heart and my son’s heart that day.”
Gregory McMichael apologized in court to his son, saying he should have “never put him in that situation” of shooting Arbery, and to his wife, thanking her for standing by him. “You are a better wife than I deserve,” he said.
Travis McMichael declined to speak during his sentencing hearing. In seeking an order that he serve his sentence in federal prison, Copeland, his lawyer, said she understood “the rich irony … of expressing that my client will face vigilante justice himself.”
When it was his turn to speak, Bryan apologized to the Arbery family.
“I’m glad to finally have the chance to say to Mr. Arbery’s family and friends how sorry I am for what happened to him on that day. I never intended any harm to him, and I never would have played any role if I knew then what I know now,” Bryan said.
Arbery’s family also addressed the court, tearfully recalling their tremendous loss and pleading with the judge to show the defendants no mercy.
“If they had left him alone that day, they would have been fine. But they tortured him,” Kimberly Arbery, Ahmaud’s aunt, said of her slain nephew. “Give these people what they deserve.”
Another aunt, Ruby Arbery, said Gregory McMichael failed his son by participating in the chasing and killing of Arbery.
“Seems like a generational curse: like father, like son,” she said. “I don’t want them to have an easy life, because we will never have an easy life again. If they could bring Ahmaud back, they could have an easy life. But they chose to take a life, so they don’t deserve an easy life.”