Three white men convicted of murder for chasing and killing Ahmaud Arbery were justly sentenced to life in prison Friday, with a judge denying any chance of parole for the father and son who armed themselves and initiated the deadly pursuit of the 25-year-old Black man.
Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan Jr. were convicted in November on several charges, including felony murder, for the February 2020 slaying of Arbery, in a case that drew national outrage.
Each defendant was also convicted on charges of aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and attempt to commit a felony. The jury also convicted Travis McMichael, who shot Arbery, of malice murder. The minimum sentence is life in prison.
For Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley, the main decision was whether to grant the men an eventual chance to earn parole.
The judge ordered both McMichaels to serve life without parole. Bryan was granted a chance of parole but must first serve at least 30 years in prison.
The McMichaels grabbed guns and jumped in a pickup truck to pursue Arbery after seeing him running in their neighborhood outside the Georgia port city of Brunswick in February 2020.
The McMichaels told police they suspected Arbery was a fleeing burglar when they armed themselves and jumped in the pickup truck to chase him. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own pickup when they passed his house and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery at close range with a shotgun as Arbery threw punches and grabbed for the weapon.
The three defendants claimed that they believed Arbery could be responsible for burglaries in the neighborhood. The defense cited Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, which allows citizens to make an arrest “if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”
But the prosecution pointed out that the defendants’ actions were not covered under the law, because they didn’t inform police of any specific crime Arbery committed on the day of his shooting.
Dunikoski said the defendants “made their decision to attack Ahmaud Arbery in their driveways because he was a Black man running down the street.”
There was no evidence Arbery had committed any crime.
In the sentencing hearing, Judge Walmsley said Arbery left his home for a jog and ended up running for his life for five minutes as the men chased him in pickup trucks until they finally cornered him.
“Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down and shot, and he was killed because individuals here in the courtroom took the law into their own hands,” the judge said.
Before sentencing, Walmsley paused for a minute of silence to help give the scope of what those five minutes must have been like for Arbery.
“When I thought about this, I thought from a lot of different angles. I kept coming back to the terror that must have been in the mind of the young man running through Satilla Shores,” he said, mentioning the neighborhood outside the port city of Brunswick where Arbery was killed.
During the sentencing hearing, Arbery’s family had asked the judge to show no lenience.
Arbery’s sister recalled his humor, describing him as a positive thinker with a big personality. She told the judge her brother had dark skin “that glistened in the sunlight,” thick, curly hair and an athletic build, factors that made him a target for the men who pursued him.
“These are the qualities that made these men assume that Ahmaud was a dangerous criminal and chase him with guns drawn. To me, those qualities reflect a young man full of life and energy who looked like me and the people I loved,” Jasmine Arbery said.
Arbery’s mother said she suffered a personal, intense loss made worse by a trial where the men’s defense was that Arbery made bad choices that led to his death.
“This wasn’t a case of mistaken identity or mistaken fact. They chose to target my son because they didn’t want him in their community. They chose to treat him differently than other people who frequently visited their community,” Wanda Cooper-Jones said. “And when they couldn’t sufficiently scare or intimidate him, they killed him.”
The judge’s sentences matched the recommendation of prosecutor Linda Dunikoski. She said all deserved that mandatory life sentence for showing “no empathy for the trapped and terrified Ahmaud Arbery.”
Contending the McMichaels still believed they didn’t do anything wrong, Dunikoski disclosed Friday that Greg McMichael gave cellphone video of the shooting recorded by Bryan to an attorney, who leaked it.
“He believed it was going to exonerate him,” the prosecutor said.
Robert Rubin, one of Travis McMichael’s defense attorneys, argued that his 35-year-old client deserved the possibility of parole. He said Travis McMichael opened fire only after “Mr. Arbery came at him and grabbed the gun.” But Rubin also acknowledged his client’s decisions to arm himself and chase Arbery were” reckless” and “thoughtless.”
“They are not evidence of a soul so blackened as to deserve to spend the rest of his life in prison,” Rubin said. “This was not a planned murder. This was a fight over a gun that led to Mr. Arbery’s death.”
The killing went largely unnoticed until two months after the killing, when the graphic video was leaked online and touched off a national outcry. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police and soon arrested all three men.
Next month, the McMichaels and Bryan face a second trial, this time in U.S. District Court on federal hate crime charges. A judge has set jury selection to begin Feb. 7. Prosecutors will argue that the three men violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he was Black.