By Russ Bynum, Associated Press
The white father and son convicted of murder in Ahmaud Arbery’s fatal shooting after they chased the 25-year-old Black man through a Georgia neighborhood were sentenced Monday to life in prison for committing a federal hate crime.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood sentenced Travis McMichael, 36, and his father Greg McMichael, 66, in Brunswick. Both were previously sentenced to life without parole in a state court for Arbery’s murder.
“A young man is dead. Ahmaud Arbery will be forever 25. And what happened a jury found happened because he’s Black,” Wood said.
In February, a federal jury convicted the McMichaels and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan of violating Arbery’s civil rights, concluding they targeted him because of his race. All three were also found guilty of attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels were convicted of using guns in the commission of a violent crime.
The McMichaels armed themselves with guns and used a pickup truck to chase Arbery after he ran past their home on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery with a shotgun. The McMichaels told police they suspected Arbery was a burglar, but investigators determined he was unarmed and had committed no crimes.
Before the two sentencings, Wood heard from members of Arbery’s family. His mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said that every day she feels every shot fired at her son.
“It’s so unfair, so unfair, so unfair that he was killed while he was not even committing a crime,” she said.
Greg McMichael addressed the Arbery family, saying their loss was “beyond description.”
“I’m sure my words mean very little to you but I want to assure you I never wanted any of this to happen,” he said. “There was no malice in my heart or my son’s heart that day.”
Outside the courtroom, Cooper-Jones responded to his statement.
“I think he realizes that he made some horrible decisions. Unfortunately, his apology doesn’t bring back my son,” she said.
Travis McMichael declined to address the court, but his attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, said her client had no convictions before Arbery’s slaying and had served in the U.S. Coast Guard. She said a lighter sentence would be more consistent with what similarly charged defendants have received in other cases, noting that the officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, Derek Chauvin, got 21 years in prison for violating Floyd’s civil rights, though he was not charged with targeting Floyd because of his race.
Greg McMichael’s attorney, A.J. Balbo, also cited the Chauvin sentence as well as his client’s age and health problems, which he said include a stroke and depression.
Prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein said Chauvin at least had some legitimate authority to engage Floyd initially.
“Greg McMichael had absolutely no legitimate reason to run inside and get a gun and chase after a young man who was doing nothing other than running down the road,” Bernstein said.
Arbery’s killing became part of a larger national reckoning over racial injustice and killings of unarmed Black people including Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Those two cases also resulted in the Justice Department bringing federal charges.
“The evidence we presented at trial proved…what so many people felt in their hearts when they watched the video of Ahmaud’s tragic and unnecessary death: This would have never happened if he had been white,” Christopher Perras, another prosecutor, said Monday.
A state Superior Court judge imposed life sentences for the McMichaels and Bryan in January for Arbery’s murder, with both McMichaels denied any chance of parole. Bryan had a sentencing hearing scheduled later Monday in the federal case.
All three defendants have remained jailed in coastal Glynn County, in the custody of U.S. marshals, while awaiting sentencing after their federal convictions in January.
Because they were first charged and convicted of murder in a state court, protocol would have them turned them over to the Georgia Department of Corrections to serve their life terms in a state prison.
In court filings last week, both Travis and Greg McMichael asked the judge to instead divert them to a federal prison, saying they won’t be safe in a Georgia prison system that’s the subject of a U.S. Justice Department investigation focused on violence between inmates.
Copeland said during Monday’s hearing for Travis McMichael that her client has received hundreds of threats that he will be killed as soon as he arrives at state prison and that his photo has been circulated there on illegal phones.
“I am concerned your honor that my client effectively faces a back door death penalty,” she said, adding that “retribution and revenge” were not sentencing factors, even for a defendant who is “publicly reviled.”
Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery Sr., said Travis McMichael had shown his son no mercy and deserved to “rot” in state prison.
“You killed him because he was a Black man and you hate Black people,” he said. “You deserve no mercy.”
Wood said she didn’t have the authority to order the state to relinquish custody of Travis McMichael to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, but also wasn’t inclined to do so in his case. She also declined to keep Greg McMichael in federal custody.
During the February hate crimes trial, prosecutors fortified their case that Arbery’s killing was motivated by racism by showing the jury roughly two dozen text messages and social media posts in which Travis McMichael and Bryan used racist slurs and made disparaging comments about Black people.
Defense attorneys for the three men argued the McMichaels and Bryan didn’t pursue Arbery because of his race but acted on an earnest — though erroneous — suspicion that Arbery had committed crimes in their neighborhood.