Sentencing Monday in hate crimes case over Ahmaud Arbery’s murder

Travis McMichael fears he’ll be killed in state prison, attorney says

Credit: Pool photos

Credit: Pool photos

The three men convicted of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder will face a federal judge Monday to learn their sentences in the hate crimes case over the 25-year-old’s slaying.

Travis McMichael, his father Greg and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were already sentenced to life in prison earlier this year in the state murder case. Only Bryan, 52, was given the possibility of parole.

All three men were convicted again in February following a high-profile hate crimes trial in which federal prosecutors successfully argued the men targeted Arbery because of his race as he ran through their neighborhood just outside the city of Brunswick.

Arbery, who was Black, collapsed in the street after being shot twice at close range by Travis McMichael, who was wielding a 12-gauge shotgun.

The Feb. 23, 2020, shooting was filmed by Bryan, who had jumped in his own pickup truck and joined the chase after seeing Arbery run by with the father and son in pursuit.

The McMichaels said they suspected Arbery was a burglar, though the avid runner was unarmed and had nothing in his hands when he was chased down by the three white men in pickup trucks. Prosecutors said he ran for about five minutes before being killed by Travis McMichael during a tussle over the shotgun in the road.

The three men weren’t charged until May 2020, more than two months after the killing, when Bryan’s cellphone video was made public.

What remains to be seen is whether the McMichaels and Bryan will serve out their sentences in state or federal custody. The federal charges carry a possible sentence of life in prison, but Greg McMichael’s lawyer filed a memorandum requesting leniency for the 66-year-old former law enforcement officer.

The elder McMichael, who worked as a police officer and an investigator for the local district attorney’s office, asked the judge to allow him to serve his time in federal prison, where conditions are safer.

In a filing Monday, A.J. Balbo, Greg McMichael’s federal attorney, asked the judge not to send his client to a state prison “whose very operation may enable inmates to engage in dangerous and even deadly activities.”

Arbery’s parents have said they want to see all three serve out their sentences in state prison. In late January, they asked U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood to reject a plea deal that would have allowed the McMichaels to spend 30 years in federal custody.

“Granting these men their preferred choice of confinement would defeat me,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told Wood at the hearing. “It gives them one last chance to spit in my face.”

Balbo’s court filing included a letter from Greg McMichael’s wife, Leigh, in which she called Arbery’s killing “a tragedy of epic proportions.”

“Please have Mercy on Greg,” she wrote. “His intention in this tragedy was not to hurt anyone.”

In a separate sentencing memorandum filed Thursday, Travis McMichael’s attorney said her client has received so many threats that he’s stopped counting.

Amy Lee Copeland noted the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation into Georgia’s prison system and raised concerns her client will be killed if he’s sent to a state-run facility.

“The threats have included statements that his image has been circulated through the state prison system on contraband cell phones, that people are ‘waiting for him,’ that he should not go into the yard, and that correctional officers have promised a willingness (whether for pay or for free) to keep certain doors unlocked and backs turned to allow inmates to harm him,” Copeland wrote. “His concern is that he will promptly be killed upon delivery to the state prison system.”

Pete Theodocion, Bryan’s attorney, said he would also like to see his client serve his time in a federal prison, where he has a better chance of being protected.

“I have zero faith in the ability of the state of Georgia’s prison system to protect any inmate, much less my client,” Theodocion said in an interview, noting the high-profile nature of Arbery’s murder.

He also argued Bryan was less culpable than than his two co-defendants because he never armed himself that afternoon and later turned over his cellphone footage to police. But prosecutors in both the state and federal trials said Bryan used his truck to prevent Arbery from escaping as he ran for his life on that Sunday afternoon.

Even if the men end up in state prison initially, Georgia law allows for the Department of Corrections to request that a prisoner be transferred into federal custody “if it is determined that the custody, care, treatment, training, or rehabilitation of the inmate has not been adequate or in the best interest of the inmate or his fellow inmates.”

So far, however, the state has told attorneys it has no intention of doing that, Copeland said in her filing.

“Until sentencing is determined by the courts, the GDC cannot speculate on the pending placement of these individuals,” a Department of Corrections spokeswoman said in an email Friday afternoon.

Travis McMichael’s sentencing hearing is scheduled for 10 a.m. Monday, followed by Greg McMichael’s at 1 p.m. and Bryan’s at 3.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will be in the courtroom to bring you breaking updates and will spend time in Brunswick after sentencing to hear from residents of the community.