Three men who chased down, cornered, and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, have all gotten life sentences. Only one of them got life with the possibility of parole.
The three got their guilty convictions in November last year, and Judge Timothy Walmsley sentenced them several weeks later in 2022.
Travis McMichael, 35, and his father, Gregory McMichael, 66, both got life sentences without parole. Their neighbor, 52-year-old William "Roddie" Bryan, got a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 30 years.
The nature of this parole is meant to reflect the seriousness of the crimes Bryan was involved in.
Before Judge Walmsley handed down the sentences, he had a minute of silence. Then said that it represented a fraction of the time Arbery ran through the neighborhood, located outside Brunswick, before being chased and killed on February 23, 2020.
The judge said the murder was "chilling" and "truly disturbing." He also explained that he had thought about the killing from many angles but always concluded that Arbery must have been utterly terrified during the deadly encounter.
As the judge read the sentences, Arbery's father was in tears. Meanwhile, Gregory McMichael seemed quite troubled by his son Travis's verdict, and he leaned back on his chair after hearing that his son would be spending the rest of his life behind bars.
Before the sentencing, Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery's mother, gave a victim impact statement calling for the judge to impose the maximum sentence.
She spoke directly to her late son:
"I made a promise to you the day I laid you to rest. I told you I love you, and someday, somehow, I would get you justice."
She went on to say that her son was the honor of her life and claimed that she was very proud of him. Wanda said she still loved her son Arbery as much as she did when he was born.
The judge gave the three men additional prison time for other felony charges.
The McMichaels got 20 more years on top of the life sentences. The additional time would be served concurrently.
Bryan got an additional ten years on top of the life sentence after being found guilty of false imprisonment. He also got an additional five years after he was found guilty of a criminal attempt to commit a felony.
So, Bryan was sentenced to life in prison plus 15 years. The 15 years will be suspended, which means he will only have to serve a life sentence with the possibility of parole.
During the sentencing, Walmsley noted that the rulings do not usually bring closure, which was what the community and Arbery's family might have wanted. He suggested that these parties see the sentence as "an exercise in accountability" because we all have to be accountable for what we do.
"Today demonstrates that everybody is accountable to the rule of law. Taking the law into your own hands is a dangerous endeavor."
In a news conference after the sentences were handed down, Wanda was asked about the need to respond to comments made by Laura Hogue, Gregory McMichael's lawyer. Hogue said that Arbery's toenails were long and dirty while making her closing arguments.
Arbery's mother responded by saying that the lawyer had not mentioned that her son had been lying in the middle of the road with a hole in his chest. Wanda explained that she had no intention of bringing up the issue but wanted to clarify that her son was more than the lawyer was trying to suggest.
Even with the judge reading the sentences, the legal battle was far from over. The lawyers representing the three defendants planned on appealing the verdicts.
A federal hate crime trial was also awaiting them after Wanda filed a civil lawsuit in which the original prosecutor was charged over her mishandling of the case.
The Three Men Could Spend Decades In Prison
The lawyers representing the three men tried to ask the court for leniency toward the defendants. The men had told the police they chased the man believing he had committed a crime in the neighborhood.
According to their lawyers, the three men were great community members but had made mistakes. Therefore, the lawyers did not feel that the "mistakes" deserved harsh punishments.
According to Travis' lawyer, the 35-year-old was a "devoted father" and a "hard worker" who believed that he was doing the right thing before Arbery died.
The lawyer argued that there was nothing about Travis' life that proved that he was a danger to society at the moment or even 30 years later. He argued that it did not make any sense to send him to prison for such a long time:
"When he's in his 60s, older than me right now, do we still need, want a person like Travis McMichael behind bars?"
While defending her client Gregory, Laura Hogue said that life without parole was the preserve of the "worst of the worst" and not for someone like Gregory who had no intention of bringing about the tragic outcome witnessed on February 23, 2020, when Arbery died.
According to Kevin Gough, Bryan's lawyer, his client was different from the McMichaels since he did not know what was going on. He only joined the pursuit and was not armed.
His lawyer claimed that he was cooperative during police investigations after Arbery died.
Kevin pointed out that Bryan did not accept that what he did constituted crimes and mentioned that he did not question that what happened to Arbery was truly tragic.
Unlike Bryan, Travis and Gregory McMichaels were armed as they chased Arbery. Bryan joined them and recorded the incident from his pickup truck.
The video shows the McMichaels getting from his truck before getting into a confrontation with Arbery, who got into a scuffle with Travis over a shotgun. Travis then shot him dead.
The father and son duo claimed they were carrying out a citizen's arrest. The two also argued that they were acting in self-defense.
In court, Bryan claimed that he was not part of the murder.
After Arbery was killed, the police did not act immediately, and the men were arrested more than two months later.
The three thought they were justified in what they did, and they went to the extent of releasing the video Bryan took to the public in May 2020.
The half-a-minute video changed everything. Widespread outrage followed, and things were made worse by the murders of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta, and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.
Linda Dunikoski, the prosecutor, poked holes into the claims that the men acted in self-defense while carrying out a citizen's arrest. She pointed out that Travis had admitted that Arbery was not armed.
He also said he did not hear the unfortunate young man threaten anyone. The prosecutor also claimed that there were discrepancies between the testimony Travis gave and the information he gave to investigators.
This resulted in him claiming that he was "mixed up" and traumatized at the time the police got to the scene.
The prosecutor wondered how Arbery would be considered the aggressor considering that he was on foot, unarmed, and constantly trying to get away from the three men, two of whom were armed.
According to the judge, Arbery was hunted down and then shot by people who had decided to take the law into their own hands.
The judge also said that it did not seem that the three were remorseful over what they did. He pointed out that the McMichaels simply turned their backs and walked away after Arbery fell down, dead.
According to the judge, what happened was a callous killing that occurred because the defendants were seeking a confrontation.
The Three Appealed The Court's Decision
The jury consisted of 9 white women, 2 white men, and a black man who heard testimonies from 23 witnesses over eight days. The jury deliberated for 11 hours, and the jurors watched two video clips.
In the end, Travis was convicted on all counts he was facing: malice murder, 4 counts of felony murder, 2 counts of aggravated assault, a count of false imprisonment, and a count of criminal attempts to commit a felony.
Travis' father, Gregory, was convicted on all counts other than malice murder. On the other hand, Bryan was found guilty of all the charges he faced, apart from malice murder, felony murder, and aggravated assault charges.
After the verdicts, Travis' lawyers said their client was sorry for what Arbery had gone through. They also claimed that they planned to appeal the court's decision.
Laura Hogue also said that the verdict, which had "floored" her, would be appealed. Similarly, Bryan's lawyer Kevin Gough claimed that he was confident that the appellate courts would reverse the conviction.
All through, the race was one of the most prominent factors, and it was not just because the defendants were white and Arbery was black. The judge was also concerned about the composition of the jury.
Similarly, lawyers Gough and Hogue were accused of being insensitive in their remarks. Hogue was accused of dehumanizing Arbery by bringing up his "long, dirty toenails" while delivering her closing argument.
While giving her victim impact statement, Arbery's mother mentioned the toenails in a subtle reference to Hogue's comment.
She explained that her son would sometimes get messy and refuse to wear socks or take good care of his clothes.
"I wish he would have cut and cleaned his toenails before he went out for that jog that day. I guess he would have if he knew he would be murdered."
During the process of selecting the jury, Gough said that there were a lot of white men without college degrees. In Glynn County, the population is 69% white and 24% black.
In the appeals, race might also be an issue. Even before the case's conclusion, Gough asked for mistrials several times because black pastors were accompanying the family to the court in addition to having a "Prayer Wall" outside the court during the trial.
According to Dunikoski, Gough's complaints about the black pastors had caused the Prayer Wall.
She argued that Gough was a good lawyer for calling for a mistrial based on something he had "intentionally" and "strategically" caused in a bid to introduce some error into the case just in case he ended up losing.
The Legal Battle Is Far From Over
The three men have insisted that they are not guilty of federal hate crimes, interference with rights, or attempted kidnapping. Travis was also charged with discharging a firearm, and he and his father were both accused of using, carrying, and brandishing a firearm during and in connection to a violent crime.
According to federal prosecutors, the men used "force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery's right to use a public street because of his race."
Travis' defense team expressed disappointment that the Justice Department had believed a "false narrative" promoted by the media and state prosecutors. The federal trial began a month after the men were sentenced.
There was no federal bond hearing since the men were held at Glynn County Detection Center after their arrest.
If they are found guilty of the federal charges, the men might have to deal with more penalties that could be as serious as paying hefty fines or spending their lives behind bars.
When asked by federal prosecutors if she would consider a plea deal for the men, Wanda, Arbery's mother, said she would not.
She filed a civil lawsuit that targeted the three men, the police, and the prosecutorial staff. Among the staff was Jackie Johnson.
Johnson lost her reelection bid in November 2020 after serving the five-county circuit for ten years.
After Arbery was shot, Gregory McMichaels called Johnson. He had worked for her as an investigator up to 2019.
He told her he was looking for advice. The officers who responded to the incident also called Johnson to ask for her advice.
For two and a half months, nobody was arrested over Arbery's murder.
In September, Johnson was indicted for violating her oath of office and interfering with law enforcement. She faced accusations of telling police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael, violating the state laws.
Johnson was also accused of being favorable and affectionate towards Greg as the investigation continued. A day after the killing, she recused herself over her relationship with Gregory McMichael.
In October, she denied doing anything wrong as she was seeking reelection:
"It is a tragedy for the family. I'm sorry how things happened. I'm sorry that a lie got started, and I could not turn it back."
She eventually lost her reelection bid and faced charges over her conduct following Arbery's murder.