The white father and son who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery in a Georgia neighbourhood each received a second life prison sentence Monday — for committing federal hate crimes, months after getting their first for murder — at a hearing that brought a close to more than two years of criminal proceedings.
A U.S. District Court judge sentenced Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael, 66, in Brunswick, Ga. Both were previously sentenced to life without parole in a state court for Arbery's murder. Their neighbour, William (Roddie) Bryan, 52, who recorded cellphone video of the slaying, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
A federal jury in February convicted Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael and Bryan of violating Arbery's civil rights, concluding they targeted him because he was Black.
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 the 25-year-old 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. Investigators determined he was unarmed and had committed no crimes.
Fair trial for an 'unfair' killing
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said Monday that Travis McMichael had received a fair trial.
"A young man is dead. Ahmaud Arbery will be forever 25. And what happened, a jury found, happened because he's Black," Wood said.
Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery's mother, told reporters outside the courthouse after all three sentences had been imposed that she was "very thankful."
"It's been a long fight," she said. I'm so thankful God gave us the strength to continue to fight."
The hearings marked the first time the men involved in the deadly chase expressed any remorse to Arbery's family. Only Travis McMichael, who fired the fatal shots, chose to remain silent when given a chance to speak in court.
Greg McMichael addressed the Arbery family before he was sentenced, 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 there was no malice in my heart or my son's heart that day," he said.
Travis McMichael's 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.
Racial injustice reckoning
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," prosecutor Christopher Perras said before Travis McMichael was sentenced.
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.
Defence 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 neighbourhood.
A state Superior Court judge imposed life sentences for all three men in January for Arbery's murder, with both McMichaels denied any chance of parole.
All three defendants have remained jailed in coastal Glynn County, Ga., 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 honour, 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.