Three White men who chased and murdered 25-year-old Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in south Georgia were sentenced to life in prison Friday, with two having no chance of parole.
Travis McMichael, 35, his father, Gregory McMichael, 66, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted in November on a raft of charges, including felony murder, for Arbery’s death.
Judge Timothy Walmsley sentenced the McMIchaels to life in prison without the possibility of parole, while Bryan was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole. The 52-year-old will be eligible for parole under Georgia law only after he has served 30 years in prison because he was convicted of serious violent felonies.
Before handing down the sentence, Walmsley held a minute of silence, saying it “represents a fraction of the time Ahmaud Arbery was running” through the neighborhood outside Brunswick before he was killed on February 23, 2020.
He described the killing as a “chilling, truly disturbing scene,” telling the court, “When I thought about this, I thought from a lot of different angles. And I kept coming back to the terror that must have been in the mind of the young man running through Satilla Shores.”
Arbery’s mother and father cried as the sentences were handed down, according to a pool reporter present. Gregory McMichael leaned back in his chair and appeared visibly shaken, the reporter added, after his son was sentenced.
Earlier in the day, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones delivered a victim impact statement aimed at achieving a stiffer sentence, asking the judge to impose the maximum sentence.
“I made a promise to you the day I laid you to rest,” she said, speaking directly to her late son. “I told you I love you, and someday, somehow, I would get you justice.”
“Son, I love you as much today as I did the day you were born. Raising you was the honor of my life, and I’m very proud of you.”
The judge imposed additional prison time for each of the defendants for other felony charges. For the McMichaels, that additional time will be served concurrent to each other but consecutive to the life sentence, Walmsley ruled. As a result, both face total sentences of life without parole plus 20 years.
For Bryan, Walmsley imposed additional imprisonment sentences of 10 years for his false imprisonment conviction and 5 years for his criminal attempt to commit a felony conviction.
Unlike the sentence for the McMichaels, the additional sentence for Bryan totaling 15 years will be suspended, resulting in a total sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole.
“We are all accountable for our own actions. Today demonstrates that everybody is accountable to the rule of law. Taking the law into your own hands is a dangerous endeavor.”
Sentencing, Walmsley said, “does not generally provide closure,” though that may be what Arbery’s family and the community are seeking. “Instead of closure, maybe it would be best to see today’s proceeding as an exercise in accountability,” the judge said.
At a news conference after the sentencing, Arbery’s mother was asked how important was it for her to respond to comments from Gregory McMichael’s defense attorney Laura Hogue, who called Arbery’s toenails long and dirty in her closing arguments.
Cooper-Jones responded saying, “The long toenails that she brought up in her closing argument, she failed to mention that Ahmaud was laying there in the middle of the road with a big hole in his chest. She left that part out,” she said. “I didn’t want to mention that today, but I wanted to reiterate that Ahmaud was bigger, he was bigger than that.”
The sprawling legal saga isn’t over: The men’s attorneys say they’ll appeal the verdicts; a federal hate crime trial is slated for next month; Arbery’s mother has filed a civil lawsuit; and the original prosecutor faces charges over her alleged handling of the case.
Defendants face decades in prison
Defense attorneys argued for leniency on behalf of their clients, who told police after the shooting that they chased Arbery because they believed he had committed a crime in their neighborhood.
The defendants, their attorneys argued Friday, were upstanding members of their communities who had made mistakes, but whose actions did not deserve among the harshest possible sentences.
Travis McMichael is a “devoted father,” said his attorney Robert Rubin, and a “hard worker,” who thought he was doing the right thing for his community at the time of Arbery’s killing.
“Nothing in Travis McMichael’s life suggests that he’s a danger to society now, or will be a danger to society 30 years from now after he has time to think, to work, to grow,” Rubin said. “When he’s in his 60s, older than me right now, do we still need, want a person like Travis McMichael behind bars?”
Hogue similarly asked for life with parole for her client, arguing he was a good man and Arbery’s death was an unintended consequence of his actions.
“If life without parole is a sentence that is held for only the worst of the worst, it simply can’t be a sentence for a person who never intended that tragic result that took place on February 23, (2020),” she said.
Attorney Kevin Gough distinguished Bryan, his client, from the McMichaels. Bryan did not know what was happening when he joined the pursuit of Arbery, Gough argued, nor did he have a weapon with him. And after Arbery was dead, he cooperated with law enforcement, Gough said.
“I think it is readily clear that while Mr. Bryan has disputed and continues to dispute whether things that he did that day constituted crimes, he has never questioned the tragedy of this death,” Gough said.
The McMichaels were armed as they gave chase that afternoon in February 2020, and Bryan later joined the pursuit, recording it from his pickup. Bryan’s video shows Travis McMichael exit his truck and confront Arbery, who tussles with Travis over a shotgun before the younger McMichael fatally shoots him.