Two years after Ahmaud Arbery’s killing in Georgia, justice has been delivered after three men convicted in his murder were found guilty in federal court Tuesday for pursuing him out of racial animus, his family says.
“This hate crime trial actually showed the world what was going on in the minds of the murderers who killed Ahmaud, their state of mind, what type of people they really were,” Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, told CNN’s Don Lemon on Tuesday.
The White men – Travis McMichael and his father Gregory McMichael, along with neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan – pursued Arbery, who was Black, in the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick before Travis McMichael shot him during a struggle over McMichael’s shotgun on February 23, 2020.
In their federal hate crimes trial, the three were convicted on a hate crime charge of interference of rights in addition to attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels also were convicted of gun charges.
Prosecutors in the federal trial homed in on testimony detailing how all three defendants spoke privately and publicly about Black people using inflammatory and derogatory language, including racial slurs. During closing rebuttal arguments this week, prosecutors emphasized in their argument that Arbery was killed because he was Black.
“The three defendants did not see 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery as a fellow human being,” Assistant US Attorney Tara Lyons said, calling into question a perceived lack of remorse from the defendants after the shooting.
Federal prosecutors and Arbery’s family have said he was out on a jog when the defendants got into trucks, chased and killed him. The defense argued that the pursuit began when the elder McMichael saw Arbery running from the direction of an under-construction home, and that he believed he matched the description of someone who had been recorded there previously. A neighbor testified Arbery ran from the property just as he called police to report him there, though McMichael didn’t know about the call.
Prosecutors conceded Arbery was in the under-construction home that day and several other times – but was in the neighborhood to jog, and never broke into the home as there was nothing barring entry, never took anything, and never did anything that would allow the men to pursue or stop him. They also said that White people had visited the site apparently without being chased.
Defense attorneys argued the McMichaels pursued Arbery in a pickup truck through neighborhood streets to stop him for police, and that Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense as they wrestled over McMichael’s shotgun.
Prosecutors argued the defendants falsely told police after the shooting that Arbery had been caught breaking into houses, part of a pattern showing the defendants knew what they had done wrong and were trying to get away with it.
The men were convicted in November in state court on murder charges, with the McMichaels getting life in prison without parole. Bryan, who trailed the McMichaels during their chase of Arbery and recorded video of the shooting, was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole.
For the federal convictions, the three men now also could get up to life in prison and steep fines. Sentencing will be scheduled after presentencing reports are filed, Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said in court.
Family critical of earlier plea deal
Following the guilty verdicts Tuesday, Cooper-Jones thanked the Department of Justice for its work but chastised prosecutors for a proposed plea deal in January.
Cooper-Jones spoke to DOJ prosecutors and “begged them” to not take the plea deal in the case, she said.
“What we got today, we wouldn’t have gotten today if it was not for the fight that the family put up,” Cooper-Jones said. “What the (Department of Justice) did today, they were made to do today.”
Travis McMichael had agreed to plead guilty to a single hate crime charge – interference with rights – in exchange for prosecutors recommending he serve 30 years in federal prison. After completing the federal sentence, he would’ve been returned to Georgia to finish his sentence of life in prison without parole.
But Wood said she was not comfortable with the sentencing guidelines and rejected the deal. Gregory McMichael withdrew his plea agreement after Travis McMichael’s deal failed, and the three defendants entered pleas of not guilty before trial.
The Justice Department said at the time that the court’s decision would be respected, according to Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke, but added in a statement that prosecutors “entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it.”
In addition to the federal and state sentences faced by the McMichaels and Bryan, attorney Ben Crump, on behalf of the Arbery family, said they plan to bring a civil suit once the criminal proceedings are over.
CNN’s Mike Hayes, Pamela Kirkland, Eliott C. McLaughlin, Angela Barajas, Melissa Alonso and Gregory Lemos contributed to this report.