Three white men who chased and killed 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 25-year-old Black man.
Murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison under Georgia law unless prosecutors seek the death penalty, which they opted against for Arbery’s killing. For Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley, the main decision was whether to grant Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, 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.
Arbery's family asked a judge to show no lenience Friday in sentencing three men.
During the sentencing hearing, Arbery's sister recalled her brother's 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 to the men who pursued him.
“These are the qualities that made these men assume that Ahmaud was a dangerous criminal and chase them 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 asked for the maximum sentence, saying 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.”
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski asked the judge for life without parole for Travis and Greg McMichael and the possibility of parole for Bryan. But 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 Bryan's cellphone video of the shooting to an attorney, who leaked it.
“He believed it was going to exonerate him,” the prosecutor said.
For Travis McMichael, who is 35, the possibility for parole could mean hope for release from prison in his 60s, said Robert Rubin, one of his defense attorneys. He argued that 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.”
Greg McMichael recently turned 66, and Bryan is 52, raising the chances that they would spend the remainder of their lives in prison even if granted a chance of parole.
Greg McMichael's lawyer, Laura Hogue, said her client has health problems and acknowledged he likely won't ever get out of prison. But he said granting him a chance at parole would show he didn't intend Arbery to die, never pulling his gun until his son fired his shotgun.
“Greg McMichael did not leave his home that day hoping to kill,” Hogue told the judge. “He did not view his son firing that shotgun with anything other than fear and sadness. What this jury found was this was an unintentional act.”
Bryan's lawyer said he should get a chance at parole because he showed remorse and cooperated with police, turning over the cellphone video of the shooting to help them get to the truth.
“Mr. Bryan isn’t the one who brought a gun,” Kevin Gough said. “He was unarmed. And I think that reflects his intentions.”
The guilty verdicts against the men handed down the day before Thanksgiving prompted a victory celebration outside the Glynn County courthouse for those who saw Arbery’s death as part of a larger national reckoning on racial injustice.
All three men were also convicted of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Maximum prison terms for those counts range from five to 20 years. The judge was likely to allow those additional penalties to be served simultaneously with the life sentences for murder.
The McMichaels grabbed guns and jumped in a pickup truck to chase the 25-year-old Arbery after spotting him running in their neighborhood outside the Georgia port city of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael firing close-range shotgun blasts into Arbery as he threw punches and grabbed for the weapon.
The killing went largely unnoticed until two months later, 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.
Defense attorneys have said they plan to appeal the convictions. They have 30 days after sentencing to file them.
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.
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