U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood gave Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, federal life sentences Monday for the hate crimes they committed in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
But she issued the ruling with the clear understanding that the White father and son will almost surely spend their remaining days in a Georgia state prison for the killing of the 25-year-old Black man.
After the sentencing, Wood remanded both men over to the state to begin their life sentences on murder convictions.
Additionally, Wood sentenced co-defendant William Roddie Bryan on Monday to a total of 37 years in federal prison for his role Arbery’s death. Bryan’s federal sentence is to run concurrently with his state life sentence for murder, but Wood noted that the 52-year-old would be close to 90 before the federal sentence is complete. There is no parole in the federal prison system.
Defense lawyers for all three men requested that they be sent first to federal prison, stating their lives will be in jeopardy in state prisons due to the high-profile nature of the racially charged case.
Attorney Amy Copeland said her client, Travis McMichael, has received more than 800 death threats, including warnings that he will be a marked man inside Georgia’s state prisons.
Attorney Pete Theodocion said all three men will enter Georgia’s prison system “with a big X on their backs.”
Wood rejected the requests, saying she has “neither the authority nor the inclination” to interfere with the chain of “primary custodial jurisdiction.” She said the state has priority because it was the first to arrest and try the three men.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, sat beside renowned civil rights activist Jesse Jackson in the courtroom as Travis McMichael’s verdict was read.
“I’m pleased with that,” she told The News in the hallway outside the courtroom after the verdict. “He should do the state time first. I’m extremely pleased with the sentence.”
Before Wood read Travis McMichael’s sentence, Marcus Arbery Sr. pleaded with the judge to give the maximum federal sentence. He urged her also to ensure that McMichael’s state sentence be given priority.
“These three devils have broken my heart,” the father of Ahmaud Arbery told the court. “And the pieces can’t be repaired. How can y’all ask for mercy when you didn’t give ‘Quez’ (Ahmaud) mercy? They need to go to state prison and stay there and rot.”
The three men were convicted Feb. 22 in U.S. District Court in Brunswick of attempted kidnapping and violating Arbery’s rights to use a public street because he was Black. The McMichaels additionally were charged with brandishing a firearm in the commission of a violent crime. Travis McMichael was also charged with discharging a firearm in a violent crime.
Wood sentenced Travis McMichael to life in federal prison, plus 10 years. Gregory McMichael, 66, received life in federal prison plus seven years.
“I pray that they do their time in state prison,” Ruby Arbery, an aunt of Amhaud Arbery, told the judge prior to the sentencing. “I don’t want them to have an easy life. We will never have an easy life.”
Travis McMichael killed the unarmed Ahmaud Arbery with three shotgun blasts at close range on the streets of the Satilla Shores community on Feb 23, 2020, ending a harrowing pursuit in which the three men pursued Arbery in pickup trucks as he ran for his life through the neighborhood.
The McMichaels and Bryan have been held in protective custody in the Glynn County Detention Center since the Georgia Bureau of Investigation arrested them on state murder charges in May 2020. A Glynn County jury found all three men guilty in Superior Court of murder, aggravated assault and other charges on Nov. 24, 2021. They were subsequently sentenced to life in state prison the following year on Jan. 7.
“Justice! Justice!” Marcus Arbery told The News outside the courtroom Monday. “God is good. We got everything he said he was going to give us.”
Attorney Copeland had filed a motion Thursday in federal court saying Travis McMichael’s life will be imperiled in state prison because of the notoriety of the highly publicized and racially charged murder. In addition to hundreds of death threats, she said prisoners have circulated his photo via “contraband cellphones” with designs on causing him harm. She also noted an ongoing U.S. Justice Department investigation into increased violence in the state’s prison system.
Gregory McMichael’s federal defense attorney, A.J. Balbo, made a similar request in a motion filed early last week. He said the elder McMichael should be sent first to federal prison because of failing health and because his role in the volatile case would endanger him in state prison.
Prior to delivering Travis McMichael’s sentence, Wood said his punishment was just.
“I do know that you received a fair trial,” she told Travis McMichael. “And it’s not lost on the court that such was not what Mr. Arbery received ... The court has proved beyond a reasonable doubt that you acted because of the color of Mr. Arbery’s skin.”
Travis McMichael declined to speak before Wood passed his sentence. Gregory McMichael chose to speak, issuing apologies to Ahmaud Arbery’s parents.
“The loss you’ve endured is beyond description,” Gregory McMichael said. “I want to assure you I never wanted any of this to happen.”
After the elder McMichael’s sentencing, Cooper Jones mildly acknowledged his offer of apology.
“I can say I accept the apology,” she said. “I think he realizes that he made a horrible decision. Unfortunately, his apology does not bring my son back.”
Bryan also chose to speak to the family.
“I never intended any harm to him,” Bryan said. “And I would never have played a role in what happened if I knew then what I know now.”
Even though Bryan did not carry a gun like the McMichaels did, he still had a weapon, said federal prosecuting attorney Tara Lyons. Testimony in both trials revealed Bryan used his pickup truck several times to block Arbery from escaping and running out of Satilla Shores.
“He didn’t need a gun because he had a truck in order to block Mr. Arbery’s path,” Lyons said. “This never would have happened if Ahmaud had been White.”
Both McMichaels were sentenced in state court to life without parole. Bryan received life in state prison with the chance of parole.
“However, let no one think the 447 months is a light sentence because you don’t deserve a light sentence,” Wood said. “By the time you serve this (federal) sentence, you will be close to 90 years old. But again, Mr. Arbery never got a chance to be 26.”