BRUNSWICK, Ga. — A judge sentenced three men to life in prison Friday for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and denied the possibility of parole for two of the defendants, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael.
However, Judge Timothy Walmsley granted the possibility of parole to William “Roddie” Bryan, the McMichaels’ neighbor who joined the chase and took video of the killing. Bryan must serve at least 30 years in prison before becoming eligible.
“A young man with dreams was gunned down in this community,” Walmsley said. “It was callous and it occurred … because confrontation was being sought.”
Before the sentencing was read, Walmsley held a minute of silence to represent a fraction of the time Arbery was running before he was shot. He called the image of Travis McMichael aiming a shotgun at Arbery “absolutely chilling.”
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The judge also quoted the defendant’s statements, saying their words gave context to the video and guided his sentencing decision. The minimum penalty required by law for the murder charges is a life sentence; Walmsley had to determine whether each defendant would have the possibility of parole.
On Nov. 24, a jury found Travis McMichael, 35, who pulled the trigger, guilty of nine charges: malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Jurors found Gregory McMichael, 66, guilty of all of those charges except malice murder and Bryan, 52, guilty of six charges including three counts of felony murder.
The three men chased the Arbery, 25, in trucks while he was running through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020. The men weren’t arrested for more than two months when Bryan’s video was released, which fueled nationwide racial justice protests and later became a key piece of evidence in the murder trial.
On Friday, Walmsley said he found some of Bryan’s comments to investigators “disturbing” and acknowledged the murder may not have occurred if Bryan hadn’t blocked Arbery’s path with his vehicle.
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“He did cooperate with law enforcement,” he said. “Mr. Bryan’s position is different.”
Walmsley said that while sentencing may not provide closure for the family, the community or the nation, it would hold the defendants accountable for their actions.
Arbery’s parents, Marcus Arbery and Wanda Cooper-Jones, cried as the sentence was read.Earlier Friday, the family asked for all three defendants to get the harshest penalty as they shared memories of him and the toll his death has taken.
“Your honor, these men have chose to lie and attack my son and his surviving family, they each have no remorse and do not deserve any leniency,” said Cooper-Jones. “These men deserve the maximum sentence for their crimes.”
‘Vigilantism always goes wrong,’ prosecutor says
Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski on Friday said all the defendants deserved the mandatory life sentence for showing “no empathy for the trapped and terrified Ahmaud Arbery.”
She asked the court to impose a harsher sentence on Greg and Travis McMichael because of their “demonstrated pattern of vigilantism.” She pointed to a series of incidents described during the trial in which the father and son tried to investigate alleged crimes in their neighborhood.
“Vigilantism always goes wrong,” she said. “Here we have some men who should have known better.”
Dunikoski added that Bryan contributed to Arbery’s death “in a significant way” and his “actions speak for themselves.”
Defense attorneys highlight lack of criminal history, intent to kill
Defense attorney Bob Rubin highlighted Travis McMichael’s service in the Coast Guard and argued that he did not intend to kill Arbery. Rubin said the harshest possible sentence should be reserved for “the worst of the worst.”
“This was not a planned murder,” he said. “The only purpose of a life without parole sentence, your Honor, is vengeance, is retribution.”
Greg McMichael’s attorney Laura Hogue made similar arguments Friday adding that the elder McMichael has no criminal history and did not fire his weapon. Hogue argued that the incidents described by Dunikoski were not examples of vigilantism but “exactly what a neighborhood watch program is all about.”
“Greg McMichael is a good man,” she said. A life sentence with parole “is the only way, your Honor, to honor the jury’s verdict that Greg McMichael committed crimes for which he never intended the result.”
Bryan must serve at least 30 years in prison before he becomes eligible for parole. Typically, people in prison are not granted parole when they first become eligible. In Georgia, if someone serving a life sentence has their parole denied, the parole board will reconsider that decision at least once every eight years.
Attorney Kevin Gough asked the court to allow the board to consider parole for Bryan “whenever they see fit” under a provision of Georgia law which prosecutors said does not apply. Gough tried to separate Bryan from the other two defendants saying that he is not a vigilante and did not bring a weapon.
The defendants all had the opportunity to speak before sentencing, a time when judges typically expect to hear remorse, but did not.
An appeal is likely
The men’s attorneys told reporters they plan to appeal.Walmsley said Friday they must do so within 30 days.
They may be able to successfully argue the judge should not have excluded evidence about Arbery’s mental health and previous encounters with law enforcement, and that the public attention and protests outside the courthouse interfered with the defendant’s right to a fair trial, said Ron Carlson, a professor emeritus at the University of Georgia law school who followed trial.
However, he noted that only a small percentage of criminal cases are overturned on appeal.
“I don’t think it’s a frivolous appeal,” Carlson said, but “appellate courts are very reluctant – unless things are pretty clear and overpowering – to reverse on appeal.”
Defendants still face federal hate crimes trial, civil lawsuit
After being sentenced on the state charges, the three men will face a federal hate crimes trial for killing Arbery. The three men are white; Arbery was Black.
All three are charged with interfering with Arbery’s rights and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels are also charged with using, carrying and brandishing – and in Travis McMichael’s case, firing – a gun during and in relation to a crime of violence.
The federal charges are punishable by death, life in prison or a shorter prison sentence and a fine, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. There is no parole in the federal system.
Attorneys will begin selecting a jury from a wide pool of 43 counties across the Southern District of Georgia for that trial Feb. 7. The proceedings are set to take place in Glynn County.
The McMichaels and Bryan are also facing a civil lawsuit filed by Arbery’s mother. The wrongful death suit seeks $1 million in damages and also names former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, former Glynn County Police Chief John Powell, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, and several Glynn County police officers.
Contributing: The Associated Press