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.

Credit: John Bazemore, AP

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.

ExploreComplete coverage of the Ahmaud Arbery case

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.

“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.

Credit: Associated Press

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.

ExploreFeds: defendants driven by ‘pent-up racial anger’

“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.”

“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

  • Feb. 23, 2020

    Ahmaud Arbery is shot to death as he jogs through a neighborhood near his Brunswick home. Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael confronted Arbery and shot him. Roddie Bryan, a neighbor, joined the chase.

  • April 7, 2020

    Ware County District Attorney George Barnhill, who received the Arbery case after Glynn DA Jackie Johnson (shown here) recused herself on Feb. 27, recuses himself at the request of Arbery's family.

  • May 5, 2020

    Video of the Arbery shooting is released, going viral. The next day, May 6, the GBI's Kingsland branch opens its investigation into the shooting.

  • May 7, 2020

    The GBI announced the arrests of both McMichaels. Both father and son were charged with murder and aggravated assault. Roddie Bryan is arrested May 21 on charges of murder and criminal attempt to commit a felony.

  • May 10, 2020

    Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr asks the Department of Justice to review the investigation into Arbery's death. The next day, Carr appoints Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes to prosecute the case.

  • June 24, 2020

    A Glynn County Grand Jury indicts the McMichaels and Bryan on malice and felony murder charges.

  • April 28, 2021

    Governor Brian Kemp signs legislation overhauling the state's citizen's arrest law.

  • May 18, 2021

    The trial on state charges is heard in Glynn County Superior Court by a visiting judge, Timothy Walmsley, because local judges had recused themselves in the case.

  • Nov. 5, 2021

    Opening statements in the trial of the McMichaels and Bryan begin.

  • Nov. 24, 2021

    The McMichaels and Bryan are convicted of murder.

  • Jan. 7, 2022

    The McMichaels are sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Bryan is given life in prison with the chance of parole.

  • Feb. 1, 2022

    A federal judge rejects a plea agreement for Travis McMichael just one week before he is to stand trial for federal hate crimes.

  • Feb. 14, 2022

    Opening statements begin in the federal hate crimes trial.

  • Feb. 21, 2022

    Closing arguments begin in the federal hate crimes trial.

  • Feb. 22, 2022

    The McMichaels and Bryan are found guilty of federal hate crimes.