The nation focused its attention once again Friday on this sleepy coastal Georgia community's seat of justice, looking on as the three White men convicted of murder in the killing of a 25-year-old Black man received life sentences at the Glynn County Courthouse.
Travis McMichael, 35, and his father Gregory McMichael, 66, both were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Each received an additional 20 years for aggravated assault.
William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
State sentencing guidelines require a person to serve at least 30 years before being parole eligible.
Before the sentencing, the still-grieving parents and sister of Ahmaud Arbery addressed the court.
Travis McMichael shot the unarmed Arbery dead with buckshot from a 12-gauge shotgun on a public street on Feb. 23, 2020, concluding a pursuit in which the young victim ran for his life as the three men chased him in two separate pickup trucks for approximately five minutes through the Satilla Shores neighborhood.
Bryan recorded the deadly conclusion with his cellphone. That chilling video replayed repeatedly during trial as Arbery’s parents and family stood witness.
No punishment can replace the sorrowful void left in their lives, the parents said at sentencing.
Marcus Arbery was first to address the court. A former standout football player at Brunswick High and an avid runner to the end of his short life, Ahmaud Arbery was only enjoying his favorite activity that day, his father said.
“The man who killed my son has sat in this courtroom every single day next to his father,” Arbery said. “I will never get that chance, to sit next to my son, ever again — not at a dinner table, not at a holiday, not at a wedding ... Not only did they lynch my son in broad daylight, but they killed him while he was doing what he loved more than anything, running. That’s when he felt most alive, the most free. They took all that from him ... We loved our son and we’ll never have him to celebrate anything again.
“They should spend the rest of their lives thinking about what they did and what they took from us. And they should do it from behind bars.”
Wanda Cooper Jones broke into tears shortly after she began speaking of the joy her son had brought to her life. She too asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence.
“I told you I love you and that someday, somehow, I would get you justice,” Cooper Jones said, first addressing the son she lost. “Son, I love you as much today as I did the day you were born. Raising you was the honor of my life, and I’m very proud of you ...”
“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 frequented the community. And when they couldn’t intimidate him, they killed him ... These men deserve the maximum sentence for their crime. Ahmaud never said a word to them, he never threatened them. He just wanted to be left alone. They were fully committed to their crime. Let them be fully committed to the consequences.”
Concluding a dramatic and graphically violent six-week trial, the jury deliberated a little more than 10 hours before delivering its verdict on Nov. 24.
The McMichaels and Bryan were convicted of murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
In the courtroom, Jasmine Arbery broke into tears over the loss of her younger brother.
“Ahmaud had dark skin that glistened in the sunlight like gold,” she told the court “He had thick curly hair that he would often like to twist ... He was tall and athletically built. He enjoyed running and being outdoors. These are the qualities that made these men think he was a criminal ... The loss of Ahmaud has devastated my family, so I’m asking that the men who killed him be given the maximum sentence available to the court.”
Murder convictions call for a life sentence, but Eastern Judicial Circuit Judge Timothy Walmsley had the choice of sentencing the men to life in prison without parole or to life with the possibility of parole.
Remorse of the convicted is a factor that can be taken into account when imposing sentence.
Defense attorneys argued that the men could not feasibly express remorse because of the upcoming federal hate crimes trial against them in the killing of Arbery. That trial begins next month in U.S. District Court in Brunswick.
Walmsley disagreed, saying the two McMichaels men had the opportunity to show remorse the day Arbery died. Instead, he said, they are seen on Bryan’s video ignoring Arbery after he collapsed to the ground.
Walmsley noted that Gregory McMichael told Arbery during the chase that he would “blow your f-----g head off!” On police body camera footage, Gregory McMichael is heard using a crass expletive to describe Arbery, his dead body lying in the street nearby, Walmsley noted.
Walmsley further noted that Travis McMichael is heard on police body cam saying it was the worst day of his life, showing no genuine concern for the man he killed.
Walmsley said Bryan did express remorse to investigators, at the scene and afterward over Arbery’s death and for his role in causing it.
“Remorse is something that’s felt and demonstrated,” Walmsley said. “In this case, getting back to the video, after Ahmaud Arbery fell, the McMichaels turned their backs — it’s a disturbing image — and they walked away. It’s callous ... and it occurred because confrontation was being sought.”
As Walmsley’s decision was announced, a loud shout went up from members of the Arbery family and supporters who were listening in front of the courthouse.
His aunt, Diane Jackson, shouted “Yes Lord. Thank you Jesus,” toward the skies and thrust her hands overhead as she stood against a police barrier. She shouted again as she heard each of the maximum sentences.
Cobb County District Attorney Flynn D. Broady Jr., said his assistants spent two hard weeks in court prosecuting the case. But he said there were “18 months of hard work uncovering the facts so we could promise justice for this family.”
Broady said he had to give credit to the jurors who returned the guilty verdicts.
Cooper Jones said after the hearing she always knew the prosecutors would convict her son’s killers.
“I never doubted it,’’ she said
She said she was ignored by the police as she sought to get her son’s killers arrested because “they thought I was alone.”
“They didn’t know I had you guys,’’ she told the crowd of supporters.
The trial opened Oct. 18 with jury selection for this highly publicized and emotionally charged case that stirred national outrage and cries of racial injustice.
The county clerk of superior court summoned an unprecedented 1,000 county residents in an attempt to impanel an impartial jury locally. Prosecutors and defense attorneys spent two-and-a-half weeks intensely questioning hundreds of potential jurors before emerging with the overwhelmingly White jury. Many decried the demographics of jury.
Another two and a half weeks of testimony and countering arguments followed, during which prosecutors and defense attorneys presented opposing versions of the same facts. Defense attorneys argued Arbery died as a result of lawful self-defense during a legal citizen’s arrest. Linda Dunikoski, senior attorney for the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, contended the men hunted Arbery down and murdered in him cold blood because he was a Black man jogging in their neighborhood.
Defense attorneys claimed the McMichaels both employed military and law enforcement experience to guide them in citizen’s arrest procedures and use of force protocols. Travis McMichael was the only defendant to take the stand, testifying on tactics learned in the Coast Guard that guided his actions that day.
In cross examination, Dunikoski effectively portrayed Travis McMichael as a vigilante who armed himself and took matters into his own hands. She noted comments on a Satilla Shores neighborhood Facebook page where he urged neighbors to “arm up” and suggested wrongdoers “were playing with fire on this side of the neighborhood.”
Further, testimony from the McMichaels and a county police officer, as well as surveillance video from a nearby uncompleted home, showed Arbery committed no crimes. Travis McMichael further testified that Arbery never presented a threat to him or others throughout the chase.
It started when the McMichaels armed themselves, jumped into a pickup truck and began chasing Arbery after Greg McMichael saw him run past their home at 230 Satilla Drive that afternoon. (Arbery lived with his mother in the nearby Fancy Bluff neighborhood and enjoying jogging, friends and family said.)
Bryan jumped into his pickup truck and joined the chase after seeing Arbery run past his home with the McMichaels in pursuit.
The men used their trucks to block Arbery’s escape on several occasions, testimony revealed. This led to the deadly confrontation where Travis McMichael blasted Arbery with two fatal gunshots as the two men struggled for possession of McMichael’s shotgun.
Walsmley described Friday’s proceedings as “an exercise in accountability.” He added that “today the defendants are being held accountable for their actions. Taking the law into your own hands is a dangerous endeavor.”
In his sentencing, Walmsley noted the punishment might not bring the closure so badly needed by the family, the community and perhaps the nation as whole. But, he said, people might take lessons from the tragedy about how we treat each other and what it means to be a neighbor.
“I think ultimately, with regard to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, it holds us accountable,” Walmsley said. “It should force us to consider expanding our definition of what a neighbor may be and how we treat them ... In assuming the worst in others, we always show our worst characteristics. Assuming the best in others is always the best course of action. And maybe those are the grand lessons of this case.”
The three men will face federal hate crimes of interference of rights and attempted kidnapping in a trial that begins with jury selection Feb. 7 at the U.S. District Courthouse in Brunswick. The McMichaels are also facing federal charges of brandishing a firearm in a crime of violence. Travis McMichael is additionally charged with discharging a firearm in a violent crime.
The News’ Terry Dickson contributed to this story.