BRUNSWICK – Greg and Travis McMichael were sentenced Friday to life in prison without the possibility of parole for Ahmaud Arbery’s murder, bringing an end to his grief-stricken family’s quest for justice that lasted nearly two years.
William “Roddie” Bryan, the McMichaels’ neighbor who filmed the disturbing cellphone video of Arbery falling dead in the street, was given life in prison with the chance of parole. He will be at least 80 by the time he’s eligible for release.
Before sentencing the men, Judge Timothy Walmsley called Arbery’s killing “a tragedy on many, many levels.”
“A resident of Glynn County, a graduate of Brunswick High, a son, a brother, a young man with dreams was gunned down in this community,” he said. “As we understand it, he left his home, apparently to go for a run, and ended up running for his life.”
The judge then sat silently for one minute, which he said represented a fraction of the five minutes Arbery spent running from the three white men who chased him in pickup trucks the sunnySunday afternoon of Feb. 23, 2020. In reaching his decision, Walmsley said he focused on the terror Arbery must have felt that day.
“Ahmaud Arbery was then hunted down and shot,” Walmsley said, calling the shooting callous. “And he was killed because individuals here in this courtroom took the law into their own hands.”
The men contended they were trying to conduct a citizen’s arrest because they suspected the 25-year-old of burglarizing a home under construction. A jury of 11 white members and one Black man rejected those claims last November when it convicted the men of murder and other charges.
Travis McMichael is 35, his father is 66 and Bryan is 52.
There was no proof Arbery ever stole anything from the house. Defendants later told police they hadn’t seen him do anything wrong when they chased him, Walmsley noted.
Arbery was unarmed when he was chased through the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside Brunswick and killed by Travis McMichael during a struggle over the 12-gauge shotgun in the road.
The shooting, captured on Bryan’s phone, galvanized the coastal Georgia community and helped spark the reckoning on racial injustice that swept the United States in 2020. The cellphone footage, released weeks before George Floyd’s murder, also proved to be a crucial piece of evidence at the state trial.
As the men were sentenced Friday afternoon, supporters of Arbery’s family celebrated outside the courthouse. Chants of “Justice for Ahmaud” could be heard from the second-floor hallway.
“My prayer was to get justice for Ahmaud,” his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told the crowd. “I knew that we would come out with a victory. I never doubted it. I knew that today would come.”
Earlier Friday, she wept in court as she asked the judge to give all three men the stiffest sentences possible.
“They chose to target my son because they didn’t want him in their community,” Cooper-Jones said. “When they couldn’t sufficiently scare him or intimidate them, they killed him.”
Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud’s father, said his son was killed while doing what he loved most: running.
“That’s when he felt most alive, most free, and they took all that from him,” he said.
He also noted that Greg and Travis McMichael sat next to each other each day of the trial, something he’ll never get the chance to do with his own son.
“The man who killed my son has sat in this courtroom every single day next to his father. I’ll never that chance ever to sit next to my son ever again,” he added. “Not a dinner table, not a holiday and not at a wedding.”
Ahmaud Arbery’s sister didn’t mince words when she said she believed race played a role in her brother’s shooting.
“Ahmaud had dark skin that glistened in the sunlight like gold. He had thick, coily hair and he would often like to twist it,” Jasmine Arbery said. “He was tall with an athletic build. He enjoyed running and had an appreciation for being outdoors. These are the qualities that made these men assume that Ahmaud was a dangerous criminal.”
Jasmine Arbery, who like her mother broke down while addressing the court, said her brother’s killing devastated their family and robbed Ahmaud of his life’s pleasures, both big and small.
“Ahmaud was funny. He told jokes to lighten the mood,” she said through tears. “Ahmaud had a big personality and never missed an opportunity to let it shine. Ahmaud had a future that was taken from him in an instance of violence.”
Defense attorneys asked for leniency. Neither the McMichaels nor Bryan addressed Arbery’s family or the judgeduring the sentencing hearing. It wasn’t because they aren’t remorseful, their attorneys said, but because all three face federal hate crimes charges in a trial set to begin next month.
In imposing the sentences, Walmsley followed the recommendations of lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski. She said the McMichaels “demonstrated a pattern of vigilantism” and showed no remorse.
Travis McMichael, who killed Arbery with two shotgun blasts; his father, Greg McMichael, a former police officer and investigator with the local district attorney’s office; and Bryan were arrested in May 2020, more than two months after Arbery was fatally shot.
“This family went for 74 days in this community with the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery walking free,” said Lee Merritt, an attorney for the Arbery family. “And these men intended to get away with it.”
» Watch a replay of the sentencing, courtesy of Court TV
Wanda Cooper-Jones said her son never said a word to his killers, never threatened them and simply “wanted to be left alone.”
During her remarks, she also also referenced the comment about her son’s “long, dirty toenails” made by Greg McMichael’s attorney during her closing argument.
“He was messy. He sometimes refused to wear socks,” Cooper-Jones said as tears streamed down her face. “I wish he would have cut and cleaned his toenails before he went out that day. I guess he would have if he knew he would have been murdered.”
Attorney Bob Rubin, who represented Travis McMichael, said he was disappointed in Walmsley’s decision, which he said showed the judge “does not believe in redemption” and offered his client little hope to ever make amends for his actions.
“This is not a case in which he just targeted someone recklessly,” Rubin said in court. “This was not a planned murder. ... It was a fight over a gun that resulted in Mr. Arbery’s death.”
Before Friday’s hearing, Merritt said federal prosecutors had approached the McMichaels to try and work out a plea deal and avoid the upcoming federal trial. But the Arbery family rejected it, the attorney said.
“These men were prepared to enter a plea and admit that hate was a motivating factor,” he said. “Ultimately we rejected the deal, but I think that was strong evidence that hate was, in fact, behind their actions.”