Jill Nolin, Georgia Recorder
At the federal courthouse in Brunswick Monday, U.S. District Judge Lisa G. Wood used an even-tempered and soft voice to express her indignation for three men convicted in Coastal Georgia’s most notorious hate crime: the racially charged murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
“A young man is dead,” Wood said at the sentencing hearing for Travis and Greg McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, speaking of Arbery, whom the three men ran down and killed on a Sunday afternoon in Glynn County in 2020.
“Ahmaud Arbery will be forever 25,” she said. “Because he’s Black.”
The final stage of the criminal cases against McMichaels and Bryan ended Monday. All three white men from Glynn County had already been convicted of life sentences in state court for murdering Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020. Wood sentenced the McMichaels to an additional life sentence for the federal hate crime, while Bryan received a 35-year sentence, rejecting the defendants’ pleas for leniency.
The federal sentences marked the formal end to the Arbery family’s quest for justice, a difficult journey that revealed troubling delinquencies in Glynn County’s law enforcement system.
Arbery left home around lunchtime Sunday for a jog, but soon after reaching their neighborhood the three men considered him a criminal. While Arbery had nothing in his hands nor had he committed a crime, the three Satilla Shores residents got in their trucks and chased him. The McMichaels were armed with guns, and Bryan captured on video Travis shooting the Black man.
Within hours of Arbery bleeding to death on the street, Glynn County police had declared the incident a justified shooting. For more than two months, Arbery’s family could not get anyone to explain how their son had died — until the video of the killing went viral and prompted local and nationwide protests for justice for Ahmaud.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, was quick to remind reporters outside the federal courthouse that justice almost went undelivered.
“I just want to remind you it was 74 days before there was an arrest in my son’s case,” she said.
It was only on May 7, 2020, two days after the video of Arbery’s death was shared online, that the first arrests were made. In the following months, as prosecutors prepared their cases to trial, the trauma and outrage over the killing prompted seismic changes.
The former district attorney has been indicted on criminal charges, as has Glynn County Police Department’s former chief of police. Meanwhile, the county has hired a Black police chief.
‘You don’t deserve a light sentence’
In federal court Monday, Judge Wood refused all attempts at leniency — the McMichaels asked to serve their time in federal prison over Georgia prison, and Bryan asked for a lower sentence because of his lesser role in Arbery’s death.
Instead, the judge reminded the courthouse of the gravity of the violence the three men had committed.
She saved some of her strongest words for Bryan, who appeared in court in an orange jail jumpsuit.
“Let no one think 420 months is a light sentence because you don’t deserve a light sentence,” said Wood, a statement met with approving head nods from members of Arbery’s family in the courtroom.
Bryan, who didn’t know the McMichaels prior to the chase, was the only one of the defendants granted a chance for parole in the separate state murder case. U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons, who prosecuted the hate crime case, said Bryan’s role was infused with prejudice.
“Bryan had a special hate to make him join a chase where he knew nothing but the race of Ahmaud Arbery,” Lyons said in court. She and Arbery’s family members pointed out how Bryan didn’t offer to help nor try to stop the chase.
Judge Wood told Bryan he would be close to 90 years old should he complete his prison sentences.
In court Monday, Greg McMichael wore a navy suit jacket, gray pants, and black glasses.
Although he sat stone-faced throughout the testimony given by Arbery’s family, part of court procedure ahead of sentencing, the older McMichael showed more emotion as he thanked his wife for standing by him through the criminal proceedings.
He also offered an apology to the Arbery family.
“The loss you endured is beyond description,” McMichael said to the Arbery family. “I assure you there was no malice in my heart or my son’s heart that day.”
McMichael also apologized to his son Travis.
“I should’ve never put you into that situation,” he said.
He waved to his family after he was handed a life sentence by Judge Wood and attendees cleared out of the courtroom.
Travis McMichael gave no statement before his sentencing.
Bryan briefly apologized saying he would have acted differently “if I knew then what I know now.”
‘Public airing of the truth’
The federal trial was “a public airing of the truth” and of the racism people knew was there when they witnessed the video of Arbery’s death, according to prosecutor Lyons.
In their own statements to the court, Arbery’s father, mother, and aunts articulated the loss they’ve felt due to the loss they suffered, and the hate directed at their son by his killers.
Cooper-Jones said she struggled to comprehend how Greg McMichael went with “his son to take a life.”
Diane Jackson, Arbery’s oldest aunt, said she was appalled at his actions. She said every time she watches the video of her nephew “hunted down like an animal,” she finds herself gasping for breath.
She then turned her head to look directly at Greg McMichael.
“As a father, you should’ve known better,” said Jackson, “But as a human being, you should have done better.”
(This story is available through a reporting partnership with the Current.)
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