Relief sets in for Arbery’s family, community after guilty verdicts

Ahmaud Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones gestures to supporters as she leaves the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, after the jury found three men guilty of murder and other charges for the pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. In a country whose cavernous divides over race, guns and vigilante violence have been on display recently in courtrooms, the guilty verdicts on Wednesday were hailed by political leaders and many Americans across the political spectrum. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

caption arrowCaption
Ahmaud Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones gestures to supporters as she leaves the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, after the jury found three men guilty of murder and other charges for the pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. In a country whose cavernous divides over race, guns and vigilante violence have been on display recently in courtrooms, the guilty verdicts on Wednesday were hailed by political leaders and many Americans across the political spectrum. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

Brunswick looks to move forward; ‘We finally got justice,’ his mother says

BRUNSWICK — For Wanda Cooper-Jones, the quest for justice after her son’s death was an arduous journey.

When Ahmaud Arbery was killed in February of last year, local authorities looked the other way. Despite having the cellphone video of the 25-year-old being chased down by three white men and shot in the road, Glynn County police did not make any arrests.

The night of the shooting, an investigator called Cooper-Jones and said her son was killed by a homeowner while he was committing a burglary. She immediately knew something was off. In the weeks that followed, the grieving mother demanded answers, rallied her community and sparked a crusade for justice that swept the globe.

On Wednesday, 21 months and a day after her son was killed, Cooper-Jones wept in court as the men responsible were convicted by a jury of 11 white people and one Black man.

“I still can’t believe it,” she told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Friday. “I’m still in disbelief that we finally got justice for Ahmaud.”

Those guilty verdicts brought a palpable sense of relief to this coastal Georgia town. But the demonstrators who stood outside the courthouse for five weeks are gone now. So are the dozens of news vans that were parked nearby as people across the country anxiously followed the trial from their living rooms.

For many, the convictions of Travis McMichael, his father Greg, and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, felt like a weight was lifted off their shoulders. Others, including Cooper-Jones, say there’s still a long way to go in the nation’s fight for racial justice.

caption arrowCaption
This photo combo shows, from left, Travis McMichael, William "Roddie" Bryan, and Gregory McMichael during their trial at at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. Jurors on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021 convicted the three white men charged in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, the Black man who was chased and fatally shot while running through their neighborhood in an attack that became part of the larger national reckoning on racial injustice. (Associated Press)

Credit: Associated Press

This photo combo shows, from left, Travis McMichael, William "Roddie" Bryan, and Gregory McMichael during their trial at at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. Jurors on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021 convicted the three white men charged in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, the Black man who was chased and fatally shot while running through their neighborhood in an attack that became part of the larger national reckoning on racial injustice. (Associated Press)

Credit: Associated Press

caption arrowCaption
This photo combo shows, from left, Travis McMichael, William "Roddie" Bryan, and Gregory McMichael during their trial at at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. Jurors on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021 convicted the three white men charged in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, the Black man who was chased and fatally shot while running through their neighborhood in an attack that became part of the larger national reckoning on racial injustice. (Associated Press)

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

Arbery’s death thrust Glynn County into the national spotlight. It also brought the community together and sparked what his mother called meaningful change. Cooper-Jones noted the overhaul of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law earlier this year, the passing of a state hate-crimes statute and the indictment of former District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who was ousted by voters and later arrested over her handling of the case.

“That alone shows that his legacy will bring about change and help in holding people accountable for their bad decisions,” she said. “I really think that Ahmaud’s legacy will be change — change and accountability.”

Fletcher Holmes, 64, was out for his daily bike ride when he heard Wednesday’s news. The lifelong Brunswick resident had followed the case since the beginning, but he didn’t know the jury had reached a verdict until he saw hundreds of people chanting, crying and clinging to one another near the courthouse steps.

“That’s wonderful,” said Holmes, smiling as he stepped off his bicycle and watched the celebrations from beneath the sprawling oak trees across the courtyard.

“You knew they were guilty right off the bat,” he said. “There’s no way of looking at it any other way.”

Holmes, who is white, said he enjoys the small-town feel of Brunswick and that many people know each other. But he said there’s still an “underlying prejudice” among some circles. Blocks away from the courthouse, in a neighborhood that’s mostly Black, many of the streets are still named for long-dead Civil War generals.

Glynn County has a population of about 85,000 people, 69% of whom are white and more than 26% of whom are Black. In Brunswick, the county seat, Black residents make up about 55% of the population.

“The racism isn’t as bad as it used to be, but obviously it’s still here,” he said.

caption arrowCaption
People react outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, after the jury found three men guilty of murder and other charges for the pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. Linda Dunikoski, a prosecutor brought in from the Atlanta area, struck a careful tone in a case that many saw as an obvious act of racial violence. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

People react outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, after the jury found three men guilty of murder and other charges for the pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. Linda Dunikoski, a prosecutor brought in from the Atlanta area, struck a careful tone in a case that many saw as an obvious act of racial violence. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

caption arrowCaption
People react outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021, after the jury found three men guilty of murder and other charges for the pursuit and fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery. Linda Dunikoski, a prosecutor brought in from the Atlanta area, struck a careful tone in a case that many saw as an obvious act of racial violence. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

For the Rev. Abra Lattany-Reed, senior pastor of Harper’s Chapel United Methodist Church, the convictions mean “a resetting of our transformative work as a community.”

“As a pastor and person of faith, I’m in the business of reconciliation and hope and bringing people together. This incident helped galvanize us to go forward and decide what that looks like,” she said. “For an all-white jury and one person of color to render this verdict is particularly transformative and it speaks volumes about who we are.”

Few people here doubt that race played a role in Arbery’s murder. The chase and shooting of a young Black man in a mostly white neighborhood sparked condemnations of racist vigilantism last year, especially after Bryan’s cellphone video of the killing went viral in May 2020.

That shaky footage was the catalyst that unified residents of all backgrounds against a killing they knew was wrong, said the Rev. John Perry.

“That video was horrible,” said Perry, the senior pastor of the Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church in Brunswick and the former president of the NAACP’s Brunswick chapter.

“When I heard the verdict, it was breathtaking for me. It was a statement that our justice system isn’t fully broken,” he said. “We still have a lot of tweaks that need to be made, but that verdict showed us there was still hope.”

The GBI eventually took over the case and the McMichaels were taken into custody 74 days after Arbery’s death. Bryan was arrested two weeks after that. The cellphone video proved to be a key piece of evidence in the state’s case against the three men, along with the statements they initially gave police.

The McMichaels and Bryan claimed they were trying to perform a citizen’s arrest because they suspected Arbery had stolen from a home under construction, though lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski noted repeatedly they never used the term during interviews with police. She successfully argued they had no proof that Arbery committed any crime when they chased him through their neighborhood for five minutes on that sunny Sunday afternoon.

Travis McMichael, who fired the shotgun blasts, testified that he acted in self-defense because he feared for his life during a struggle over the gun. In finding all three men guilty of murder and other charges, jurors rejected those claims.

“I think justice was served,” said Malcolm Martin, who was friends with Travis McMichael’s sister and once attended a cookout at the family’s home. “I was going to be upset if nothing happened to them, and we’re talking about people I know that have been kind to me. I think they got what they deserved.”

In her closing arguments, Dunikoski told the jury this case wasn’t about whether the defendants were good people or bad people, but about holding them “accountable and responsible for their actions.”

As the community looks to move forward, several upcoming legal proceedings are likely to keep this case in the news, including the defendant’s upcoming sentencing hearing, their anticipated appeals and a looming federal hate crimes trial set for February.

A conviction in the federal trial could give this port city the unwanted designation of a being the site of a notorious U.S. hate crime.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley said he expects to impose sentences in the next few weeks for the murder charges. The McMichaels and Bryan face mandatory terms of life in prison with the chance of parole. But state prosecutors have put all three defendants on notice they may seek a sentence of life in prison without parole.

Attorneys for all three men have said they intend to appeal, and Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, said he plans to file a motion for a new trial as soon as next week.

“We’re disappointed in the verdict, but we respect it,” said Gough, who argued at trial that his client never had a gun and was the least culpable of all three defendants.

Jason Sheffield, one of Travis McMichael’s attorneys, said he was devastated by the jury’s interpretation of the evidence.

“He’s a good man who truly thought he was doing the right thing for him and his neighbors,” Sheffield said of Travis McMichael.

Shortly after the verdict, Sheffield also said he recognized the joy and relief the Arbery family experienced when the jury determined what happened to him was wrong.

Martin, who works as a property manager in Brunswick, said if the McMichaels were that concerned about Arbery, they should have called 911 and let the police handle it.

Instead, he said, they jumped into a truck with their guns and tried to “act like superheroes or something.”

“Three shots out of a shotgun? That’s excessive,” said Martin, who is Black. “That’s vigilantism. … That Sunday’s going to be in their heads for the rest of their lives.”

For Cooper-Jones, the trial was a grueling experience.

She sat through days of testimony, was shown autopsy photos of her son on the gurney and watched the cellphone video of Arbery’s killing more times than she cares to remember.

caption arrowCaption
Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, leaves the Glynn County Courthouse after three men were convicted of killing Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, leaves the Glynn County Courthouse after three men were convicted of killing Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

caption arrowCaption
Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, leaves the Glynn County Courthouse after three men were convicted of killing Arbery in Brunswick, Ga., on Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2021. (Nicole Craine/The New York Times)

She listened as defense attorneys portrayed her son as a burglar and a “nighttime intruder,” made comments about his “long, dirty toenails” and blamed him for his own death in an attempt to sway the mind of at least one juror.

On several occasions, Cooper-Jones had to get up and leave the courtroom.

“That was very rude, not only to Ahmaud but his family as well,” she said. “We were sitting right there.”

Thursday marked the second year in a row that Cooper-Jones didn’t have her son for Thanksgiving. But this year she has more to be grateful for.

“We waited 21 months and a day to get this verdict and I’m very, very thankful that we finally got it.” she said. “The community support was exceptional.”

On Sunday night, she plans to celebrate by making her son’s favorite meal: fried pork chops, butter beans and rice.

— Staff writer Shelia Poole contributed to this article.