3 men convicted of hate crimes in Ahmaud Arbery’s killing

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

BRUNSWICK— The three men responsible for Ahmaud Arbery’s murder were found guilty Tuesday morning of federal hate crimes, closing another chapter in his family’s two-year struggle for justice.

The verdict was reached just before 10 a.m. after less than four hours of deliberations by a jury of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person. It came a day before the two-year anniversary of Arbery’s slaying.

The convictions are viewed as a victory for the U.S. Justice Department, which has made prosecuting hate crimes a priority.

Unlike last year’s murder trial, federal prosecutors centered their case around race. Numerous witnesses testified about the three white defendants’ vile comments and bigoted attitudes toward Black people. The prosecution successfully argued that Travis McMichael, 36, his father Greg McMichael, 66, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, targeted Arbery because he was Black.

Credit: Associated Press photos

Credit: Associated Press photos

Several jurors were visibly emotional as the clerk read the guilty verdicts on all five counts of the federal indictment. The foreperson, a Black social worker, wiped tears from his eyes.

Outside the courthouse was a scene of jubilation as Arbery’s parents addressed news cameras. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, called it “Super Tuesday.”

“I want to say thank you to everybody who stood by us during this fight for justice for Ahmaud,” she said. “It’s been a very long, stressful fight.”

Cooper-Jones praised the Justice Department for bringing the federal hate crimes charges but criticized prosecutors for striking a plea deal with the McMichaels before the trial.

During an emotional pretrial hearing on Jan. 31, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, after hearing protests from Arbery’s family, declined to accept a binding plea agreement that would have required her to impose 30-year prison sentences against the father and son. Wood gave the McMichaels two days to decide whether they wanted to enter their guilty pleas to a hate crime but allow her to decide their punishment. They declined.

ExploreComplete coverage of the Ahmaud Arbery case

“What the (Justice Department) did today, it was made to do today,” Cooper-Jones said. “It wasn’t because of what they wanted to do. They were made to do their job today.”

The defendants face possible life sentences for the hate crimes convictions. Wood has yet to schedule a sentencing date.

At a press conference in Washington, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said “hate crimes have a singular impact because of the terror and fear that they inflict on entire communities. ... No one should fear that if they go out for a run they will be targeted and killed because of the color of their skin.”

Arbery should still be alive today and his family should be preparing to celebrate his 28th birthday this spring, not mourning the second anniversary of his killing, the attorney general said.

“The defendants’ actions and the racism that fueled them have inflicted enduring trauma on Mr. Arbery’s family, his friends, his community and communities across the country,” Garland said.

When asked about Cooper-Jones’ criticism of the Justice Department’s recommended plea deal, Garland became emotional, at times catching his breath.

“I cannot imagine the pain that a mother feels to have her son run down and then gunned down while taking a jog on a public street,” he said. “My heart goes out to her and to the family. That’s really all I can say about this.”

In a statement, Gov. Brian Kemp called the verdicts “another necessary step toward justice in a case that shocked many across our state and nation, my family included.”

Arbery, 25, was killed in the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside Brunswick after being chased for five minutes by the McMichaels and Bryan. All three defendants were convicted of murder at last year’s state trial and sentenced in January to life in prison. Only Bryan was given the possibility of parole.

The McMichaels contend they chased after Arbery because they suspected him of stealing from a nearby home under construction. Bryan, who lived down the street, joined the chase after seeing Arbery run past his house with the McMichaels in pursuit. He filmed the widely shared cellphone video of Travis McMichael fatally shooting Arbery at close range with his Remington shotgun.

The defendants were convicted of interfering with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race as well as attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels were also of found guilty of using weapons during a crime of violence.

Though the punishment in the federal case cannot be much more severe than the sentences given the three defendants in the state case, “symbolically, this verdict is very, very important,” said attorney BJay Pak, the former U.S. attorney in Atlanta.

“Hate crimes statutes carry a message that we will not tolerate this kind of behavior,” Pak said. “Hate crimes convictions are not all that common because it’s not often you have strong evidence of a defendant’s racist intent. In this case, however, the prosecution had powerful evidence of the defendants’ views of Black people.”

The guilty verdicts returned in federal court happened “because of Wanda and because of Marcus,” said civil rights attorney Ben Crump, holding up the hands of Arbery’s parents outside the courthouse.

Credit: Dustin Chambers / The New York Ti

Credit: Dustin Chambers / The New York Ti

“Because of indisputable video evidence, disgusting messages sent by the defendants and witness testimony, their hate was revealed to the world and the jury,” he said of the McMichaels and Bryan.

As the verdict was read, Travis McMichael bowed his head, closed his eyes and clenched his jaw. Greg McMichael turned to his wife with a sad expression before being led from the second floor courtroom.

“We’re real disappointed,” said Bryan’s attorney, Pete Theodocion. “We were optimistic that we would get a good verdict, but we have to respect it and move on.”

Attorneys representing the McMichaels declined to comment.

Civil rights leader Al Sharpton called the hate crimes verdict precedent-setting.

“It sends a signal,” he said. “The fact that this decision occurred in the Deep South shows that you can run but you can’t hide.”

— Staff writers Alexis Stevens and Tamar Hallerman contributed to this article.