2 years later, Ahmaud Arbery’s parents find justice

3 defendants convicted of federal hate crimes charges

BRUNSWICK— It’s been two years since a Glynn County police officer called Wanda Cooper-Jones and told her that her son was dead.

It was a Sunday evening in February 2020 when her phone rang. The officer on the other end of the line said Ahmaud Arbery had been killed that afternoon during a burglary and confrontation with a homeowner. Cooper-Jones’ heart dropped, but she immediately knew something didn’t add up.

What she didn’t know was that her son was shot dead in the street after being chased through a nearby subdivision for five minutes by three white men in pickup trucks. And she didn’t know that her son’s final moments had been captured on cellphone video by one of the men later convicted of his murder.

The 25-year-old’s killing galvanized this coastal Georgia community, sparking large demonstrations and helping to launch the nationwide reckoning against racial injustice.

Ahmaud Arbery's killing sparked large demonstrations in Brunswick two years ago after the cellphone video of his shooting was released.

Credit: John Bazemore, AP

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Credit: John Bazemore, AP

Travis McMichael, his father Greg and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted last year during a state trial in Brunswick. On Tuesday, a jury in U.S. District Court in Brunswick convicted the three men of federal hate crimes charges for targeting Arbery because he was Black.

For Arbery’s family, the past 24 months have been grueling. His mother and father sat through two high-profile trials, listening to weeks of disturbing testimony and looking at photo and video evidence no parent wants to see.

Attorneys for the three men argued they chased Arbery not because of his race, but because they suspected him of committing crimes in their subdivision. Federal prosecutors contended Arbery was simply jogging through the neighborhood just outside Brunswick, something he did to clear his mind.

FILE — A mural depicting Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., on Oct. 16, 2021. The three white men convicted in state court of murdering Arbery are facing federal hate crime charges.  (Dustin Chambers/The New York Times)

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“I try to connect the dots to make it make sense but I just can’t sometimes,” Cooper-Jones told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I think about it all the time. He didn’t know that was going to be the last run of his life.”

She said her son had been doing his laundry on Feb. 23, 2020. He had a load of clothes in the washer, another in the dryer and every intention of coming home that afternoon.

All three defendants were sentenced to life in prison last month, with only Bryan given possibility of parole. In their federal trial, the jury heard from more than 20 witnesses, several of whom said the men had histories of making incendiary remarks about Black people. The maximum punishment for the federal hate crimes convictions is life in prison. There is no parole in the federal system.

Travis McMichael (left), William "Roddie" Bryan and Greg McMichael.

Credit: Associated Press

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Credit: Associated Press

“These are people we go to the Walmart with,” said Cooper-Jones “These are people in our community we see every day, and they don’t like people who look like me.”

Travis McMichael had attended Brunswick High School, she noted, the same school where all three of her children graduated.

Even attorneys for the McMichaels and Bryan have denounced Arbery’s killing and their clients’ racism.

“It was horrific. It was avoidable. It shouldn’t have happened,” Greg McMichael’s attorney, A.J. Balbo, told jurors Monday in his closing arguments. Defense attorneys for the three men argued the government fell short of proving that Arbery was targeted because of his race, however.

“Would Travis McMichael have grabbed a gun and done this to a white guy?” his attorney, Amy Lee Copeland asked the jury Monday morning. “The answer is yes.”

But lifelong Brunswick resident Connie Habersham said he has no doubt Ahmaud Arbery would still be alive had he been white. Habersham, like many in this community, were outraged after learning police officers were shown Bryan’s cellphone video at the scene that day. Glynn County police never made an arrest in the case, and the McMichaels weren’t charged until 74 days later, after the GBI began its investigation.

“It was heartbreaking to watch,” said Habersham, a longshoreman who turns 68 in April. “That stuff used to happen in the old days, but you just never think you’d see anything like that going on around here.”

He said he and his colleagues watched Arbery run past them all the time on his daily jogs. Ahmaud wasn’t the biggest, but he was muscular, Habersham said. Some of the guys called him “little Mike Tyson” because it looked like he was always training for a fight.

Habersham, who is Black, said he was impressed by the way his community came together to demand accountability in the wake of Arbery’s killing.

“It was wrong, and there were a lot of white people marching right there along with us,” he said. “This was a terrible thing for the community.”

For Marcus Arbery, some the evidence presented at last week’s trial was difficult to stomach. He got up and left the courtroom last week when a GBI firearms expert pulled out the 12-gauge shotgun Travis McMichael used to kill his son. Like many in the courtroom, he said he was disgusted by some of the racist texts and social media posts the government presented as evidence.

He and Wanda Cooper-Jones argued against a plea deal for the McMichaels that could have avoided a second trial for the father and son.

Cooper-Jones said the views the hate crimes convictions as “another challenge that we have overcome.”

“I knew all week that we could get guilty verdicts. This was just confirmation,” she said. “Ahmaud will continue to rest in peace, but he will now begin to rest in power.”

Marcus Arbery said the hate crimes trial was important because it showed the world “who these men really are.”

Marcus Arbery speaks with reporters two years ago during a demonstration outside the Glynn County courthouse. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

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“These men had so much hate in their heart,” he said, noting defense attorneys couldn’t even find “one Black friend” to testify on their behalf.

He said his son had a bright future that was stolen from him on that sunny Sunday afternoon two years ago.

“He would call you every day and tell you that he loved you,” Marcus Arbery said. “I miss him, and this is something that I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life.”

Timeline: The Ahmaud Arbery case