Jury finds 3 men guilty of murder in Ahmaud Arbery’s killing

Credit: Pool photos

Credit: Pool photos

BRUNSWICK The three men charged with the killing of Ahmaud Arbery in a case that brought condemnations of racist vigilantism were found guilty Wednesday of murder, setting off exuberant outbursts inside and outside the courthouse.

After more than 10 hours of deliberation, the jury of 11 white people and one Black man found Travis McMichael, the man who killed Arbery with shotgun blasts, guilty of all nine counts against him. This included malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment. His father, Greg McMichael, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, also were found guilty of felony murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.

When the verdict was read, Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery Sr., leapt up and cheered. As the judge ordered him removed from the courtroom for his outburst, Arbery said, “It’s been a long time coming.”

Outside the courthouse, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said the convictions will allow her slain son “to rest in peace.”

“It’s been a long fight,” said Cooper-Jones, who cried in court as the guilty verdicts were read by the judge. “It’s been a hard fight. But God is good. ... I never thought this day would come.”

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The hundreds of people gathered outside were jubilant over the jury’s decision. Some hugged one another and wept. Others cheered so loudly they could be heard from the second floor of the courthouse. “Say his name!” one man chanted. “Ahmaud Arbery!” the crowd responded in unison.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley said he expects to impose sentences in the next few weeks. The three men, all of whom are white, face mandatory terms of life in prison with the chance of parole. But in prior court filings, state prosecutors put all three defendants on notice they may seek a sentence of life in prison without parole. The three men also face federal hate crime charges in a trial set for February.

Travis McMichael, who stood with his attorney Bob Rubin’s arm around his shoulder, showed no expression as the verdicts were read. As he was led away, he turned and mouthed “love you” to his mother, Leigh McMichael, and his sister, who was crying.

Upon hearing he was found guilty of felony murder, Greg McMichael bowed his head and closed his eyes.

“I’m floored, floored,” Laura Hogue, one of his lawyers, told Leigh McMichael afterward as the courtroom emptied.

Attorneys for all three defendants have said they will appeal.

“I’m completely devastated by the jury’s interpretation of the state’s evidence and our evidence,” said Jason Sheffield, one of Travis McMichael’s lawyers. “He’s a good man who truly thought he was doing the right thing for him and his neighbors.”

In reaching its verdict, the Glynn County jury dismissed the defendants’ claims that they were justified in trying to carry out a citizen’s arrest of the unarmed 25-year-old. The jurors’ verdict also indicated they rejected Travis McMichael’s claims he acted in self-defense.

In her closing argument, lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said the McMichaels and Bryan chased Arbery to his death “because he was a Black man running down the street.” She also said, “You can’t claim self-defense if you are starting the confrontation. This isn’t the Wild West.”

Arbery, who was Black, was killed Feb. 23, 2020, after being chased through the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick for five minutes by the McMichaels in their pickup truck and Bryan in his.

Dunikoski argued that Arbery was under attack as he tried to escape the neighborhood, trapped between the two trucks and then shot dead in the road.

Outside the courthouse, Dunikoski thanked Arbery’s parents for putting their faith in the team of Cobb County prosecutors. The case ended up there after numerous recusals by other district attorneys including former Glynn County DA Jackie Johnson, who was voted out of office and later indicted, accused of “showing favor and affection” to Greg McMichael, who once worked in her office. She was charged with obstruction of a police officer, a misdemeanor, and violating her oath of office, a felony.

“This verdict today was a verdict based on the facts, based on the evidence,” Dunikoski said. “When you present the truth to people and they can see it, they will do the right thing, and this is what the jury did today in getting justice for Ahmaud.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton hugged Marcus Arbery in the hallway outside the courtroom. “I told you God’s will would be done,” he told him, as Arbery wiped tears from his eyes. “God’s will always finds a way.”

Addressing the massive crowd gathered near the steps of the courthouse, the civil rights leader celebrated the guilty verdicts.

“Let the word go over all over the world that a jury of 11 whites and one Black in the deep South stood up in the courtroom and said that Black lives do matter,” Sharpton said.

Credit: Nicole Craine/The New York Times

Credit: Nicole Craine/The New York Times

Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law was largely repealed in the wake of Arbery’s death, and the General Assembly also created a hate crimes statute.

Gov. Brian Kemp released a statement shortly after a verdict was reached, calling Arbery “the victim of a vigilantism that has no place in Georgia.” He said he hopes Arbery’s family and those who followed the case “can now move forward down a path of healing and reconciliation.”

President Joe Biden also released a statement, noting that Bryan’s cellphone video of the killing drew national attention to the case.

“Ahmaud Arbery’s killing — witnessed by the world on video — is a devastating reminder of how far we have to go in the fight for racial justice in this country,” Biden said. “While the guilty verdicts reflect our justice system doing its job, that alone is not enough. Instead, we must recommit ourselves to building a future of unity and shared strength, where no one fears violence because of the color of their skin.”

News of the verdict hit Atlanta quick, as religious, political and civil rights leaders weighed in what some of them called a surprising verdict, while others saw it as a sign of progress and change.

U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, said while the verdict upheld a sense of accountability, true justice was still not served.

”True justice looks like a young Black man not having to worry about being harmed — or killed — while on a jog, while sleeping in his bed, while living what should be a very long life,” Warnock said. “Ahmaud should be with us today. I am grateful to the jury for their service and for a verdict that says Ahmaud Arbery’s life mattered.”

Following last week’s acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse in a similarly polarizing case in Wisconsin, this case was followed closely. After the verdict, Vice President Kamala Harris, Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and a host of others chimed in with opinions.

”I am grateful the jury has found the three men responsible for the senseless murder of Ahmaud Arbery guilty of their crimes,” Bottoms said. “I am hopeful that this verdict gives Mr. Arbery’s family, and people across America, some level of comfort in knowing that these men are being held accountable for taking the life of an innocent young man.”

Arbery’s aunt, Thea Brooks, watched a livestream of the verdict alongside friends and family members from the jury overflow room next door. Brooks, who has been watching court proceedings since jury selection began more than a month ago, jumped out of her seat as all three men were convicted of her nephew’s murder.

“We finally have justice for Ahmaud,” she later said. She wore a pair of earrings with her nephew’s high school football photo and a T-shirt that read “justice served.”

“It means that he didn’t die in vain,” Brooks said. “It means that people now, around the world, will know that they can’t do these types of things and get away with it, that it’s not OK to just racially profile someone.”

— Staff writers Alexis Stevens, Shelia Poole and Ernie Suggs contributed to this article.