The three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery were sentenced Friday to life in prison, with a judge denying any chance of parole for the father and son who armed themselves and initiated the deadly pursuit of the Black man in February 2020.
The life sentences for Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Arbery, and his father, Gregory McMichael, do not carry the possibility of parole. Their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan will be eligible, however, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley said. Bryan must serve at least 30 years in prison before he is eligible for parole.
All three men were convicted of murder and other charges by a Glynn County jury in November in the pursuit and fatal shooting of Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020, resulting in mandatory life sentences.
Walmsley called Arbery’s killing “callous” and said it occurred because “confrontation was being sought.”
Before announcing the sentences, the judge asked the courtroom to sit in silence for one minute to illustrate, he said, a fraction of the time Arbery was running in terror from the men before he was killed.
“He left his home to go for a run and ended up running for his life,” Walmsley said.
The sentences are in line with the request from prosecutor Linda Dunikoski, who recommended that Bryan, 52, get a chance at parole and that the McMichaels be denied that possibility. Dunikoski said the father and son showed no remorse or empathy for “the trapped and terrified Ahmaud Arbery.”
“There were so many opportunities to stop, to think,” she said. “And here’s the real problem: Greg McMichael was former law enforcement” and Travis McMichael had served in the Coast Guard.
“So here we have some men who should have known better,” she told the judge Friday morning. “Vigilantism always goes wrong.”
Defense attorneys argued in favor of parole for all three men.
An attorney for Travis McMichael, 35, said he “should have the opportunity to show that he’s grown, to show that he’s changed.” The attorney, Robert Rubin, said a parole board should determine if and when Travis McMichael is released from prison.
Gregory McMichael’s attorney, Laura Hogue, asked the judge to consider that the 66-year-old did not intend for Arbery to die.
Bryan’s attorney said his client was “in a different position” because he showed remorse and cooperated with police by turning over the cellphone video of the shooting.
“Mr. Bryan isn’t the one who brought a gun,” Kevin Gough said. “He was unarmed. And I think that reflects his intentions.”
Arbery’s parents and sister, who spoke before the sentences were handed down, asked the judge to show no lenience.
“The man who killed my son has sat in this courtroom every single day next to his father. I’ll never get that chance to sit next to my son ever again. Not at a general table. Not at a holiday. And not at a wedding,” Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, said before the sentence was announced. “His killers should spend the rest of their lives thinking about what they did and what they took from us and they should do it behind bars because me and my family have to do it for the rest of their life.”
The McMichaels armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after seeing him running in their neighborhood, Satilla Shores. Bryan joined the pursuit in his pickup truck and recorded video of the fatal encounter on his cellphone. Prosecutors said Arbery ran from the men for five minutes. Arbery was eventually trapped between the two pickup trucks and ended up in a confrontation with Travis McMichael, who was armed with a shotgun.
Walmsley said he found “absolutely chilling” the portion of the video that shows Travis McMichael lifting his shotgun to fire at Arbery from 20 to 30 yards away.
“And you watch that with context after hearing the evidence in this case, again, thinking about a young man who had been running at that point for almost five minutes,” Walmsley said. “And it is a chilling, truly disturbing scene.”
In explaining his sentencing decision, Walmsley said he was also guided by “the defendants’ own words” after the shooting.
Travis McMichael, the judge said, spoke of concern for his own well-being while Arbery lay dying in the street.
Meanwhile, Gregory McMichael attempted very early on to try to establish a narrative, Walmsley said.
“He made comments like, ‘Ahmaud Arbery was trapped like a rat,'” and “effectively admitted to authorities that he wasn’t sure what Arbery had done wrong,” the judge said.
The elder McMichael also said that if he could have gotten a shot at Arbery, he would have taken it and referred to Arbery as an “a–hole,” Walmsley said.
Walmsley said he also found it disturbing that Bryan placed blame on Arbery, saying, “If the guy would have stopped, this would have never happened.”
The judge said he agreed with Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, who said earlier Friday in her victim impact statement, “When they could not scare or intimidate him, they killed him.”
Walmsley said Arbery was killed “because individuals here in this courtroom took the law into their own hands.”
He said Arbery’s death should force people to consider what it means to be a neighbor.
“I believe that in assuming the worst in others, we show our worst character,” Walmsley said. “Assuming the best in others is always the best course of action. And maybe those are the grand lessons from this case.”
The McMichaels and Bryan had been charged with one count of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault and one count each of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
Travis McMichael, who fired at Arbery three times at close range, was convicted of all nine charges. Gregory McMichael was convicted of all charges except malice murder. Bryan was convicted of three counts of felony murder, one count of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
The nearly all-white jury deliberated for about 10 hours before delivering its verdict.
The malice murder and felony murder convictions both carry a minimum penalty of life in prison. Attorneys for all three men have said they intend to appeal the convictions.
The McMichaels and Bryan were free for several weeks after the shooting. They were arrested only after the video that Bryan recorded was released and the case was taken over by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
From the beginning, the handling of the case by local officials was called into question by Arbery’s family and friends. Arbery’s killing, along with that of George Floyd, sparked protests against racial injustice in America and beyond.
Attorneys for the men, each of whom had his own defense team, had argued that they suspected Arbery was a burglar in an area they claimed was “on edge.” Arbery was recorded on security camera video visiting a partially built home in the neighborhood several times. The videos did not show him taking anything from the property. The last video was recorded the afternoon he was killed. The defense had sought to convince the jury that the McMichaels and Bryan were trying to execute a citizen’s arrest, which was legal at the time in the state.
But lead prosecutor Dunikoski challenged that narrative. In her closing argument, she said Arbery had not committed an offense in the presence of any of the men and that they decided to “attack” him “because he was a Black man running down the street.”
“Who brought the shotgun to the party?” she said. “You can’t create the situation and then go, ‘I was defending myself.'”
Prosecutors did not argue that race motivated the killing, but all three men face federal hate crime charges.
CORRECTION (Jan 7, 2022, 5:38 p.m.): A photo caption in a previous version of this article misidentified two of the people in the photo. Travis McMichael is on the right and William “Roddie” Bryan is in the center, not vice versa.