On August 8 in Brunswick, Georgia, U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood handed down life sentences for federal hate crimes to the father and son who were convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. After the state-court criminal trial that took place in November 2021, Travis McMichael, 35, and his father Gregory McMichael, 66, were both sentenced to life without parole, while William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, who filmed the video of the shooting, was sentenced to life with a possibility of parole after 30 years. Now, all three men have just received additional sentences for the same acts, this time on federal hate-crimes charges. Travis McMichael got life plus 10 years; Greg McMichael got life plus seven years; Mr. Bryan got 35 years.
In the months leading up to Ahmaud Arbery’s death, he had been captured several times on security cameras, trespassing in a home under construction in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia. This happened at the same time as a string of unsolved thefts in the neighborhood, and the McMichaels and several other residents assumed that the trespasser was also a thief. They had called police when they saw him walking in their neighborhood after dark, but by the time police arrived, Arbery was always gone.
On February 23, 2020, Greg McMichael saw Arbery again, and he asked his son to help him go after the man. They followed Arbery in their truck. Mr. Bryan saw this and joined the chase in his own truck. The maneuvers that followed have been described by prosecutors as an attempt to “box in” Arbery. Fleeing from Roddie Bryan’s vehicle, Arbery ran towards the McMichaels’ truck, where he got into a scuffle with Travis McMichael and the men fought for control of Travis’s gun. Travis fired and Arbery was fatally wounded and died at the scene minutes later.
At the hate-crime trial in February 2022, all three defendants were convicted of using violence to intimidate and interfere with Arbery because of his race and because he was using a public street, as well as trying to kidnap Arbery by chasing after him in their trucks. Travis McMichael testified in the state trial that his intention had been “to let the police know where he’s at.”
Travis McMichael was found guilty of using, carrying, brandishing, and discharging a Remington shotgun in the course of a hate crime, which added ten years to his life sentence. His father was found guilty of using, carrying and brandishing a .357 Magnum revolver, which added seven years.
According to a Department of Justice press release, the trial relied on evidence that the defendants had “strongly held racist beliefs that led them to make assumptions and decisions about Arbery that they would not have made if Arbery were white.”
This evidence included social media comments and text messages written by Travis McMichael, in which he described black people as “sub-human savages” who “ruin everything.” The evidence showed that for many years, Travis had “associated blacks with criminality” and “expressed a desire to see black people — particularly those he viewed as criminals — harmed or killed.”
Witnesses testified at trial that Greg McMichael had made racist comments to people he barely knew. One witness testified that while working with him in a professional capacity, she commented that it was “too bad” that Julian Bond, a Black Georgia civil rights leader, had recently passed away. She said Greg angrily responded that he wished Bond had “been put in the ground years ago” and that Bond and “those blacks” were “nothing but trouble.” The witness said he then went on a five-minute rant about black people.
The jury also saw text messages written by Roddie Bryan, in which he referred to black people using racial slurs, including calling his daughter’s black boyfriend a “ni**er” and a “monkey.”
When the police spoke to Mr. Bryan about Arbery’s death, he admitted that he had never seen or heard anything about Arbery before, but when he saw a black man being chased, his “instinct” told him that the man must be a thief, or that maybe he had shot someone.
The jury found that the evidence proved beyond a reasonable doubt that race formed a “but-for cause” of the defendants’ actions on Feb. 23, 2020 — meaning that, but for Arbery being black, the defendants would not have assumed he was a criminal, chased him, and shot him.
Judge Lisa Wood said at the sentencing, “A young man is dead. Ahmaud Arbery will be forever 25. And what happened, a jury found, happened because he’s black.”
The three defendants requested that they be allowed to serve their sentences at a federal penitentiary instead of state prison. Travis McMichael’s lawyer, Amy Lee Copeland, told the judge he has received “hundreds, if not thousands of threats” and faced “an effective backdoor death penalty” if he were sent to a Georgia state prison. Miss Copeland told the judge, “His photograph, including his bright red hair, has been circulated through the contraband cellphone network.”
She asked Judge Wood to send Travis McMichael first into federal custody for a few years, to allow for “a cooling off period,” adding that “retribution and revenge” are not part of the criminal justice system, “even for a defendant who is publicly reviled.”
She also mentioned that the Georgia state prison system is being investigated by the DOJ for civil rights violations, because understaffed lockups have seen riots, suicides, stabbings, beatings, smuggled weapons, and open gang activity. Since last year, there have been 44 inmates homicides.
Mr. Bryan’s attorney, Pete Theodocion, said he couldn’t imagine anybody going into the prison system “with a bigger X on their backs” than the two McMichaels and Mr. Bryan.
The defendants were given a chance to address the court before being sentenced. Travis McMichael chose not to speak. Greg McMichael and Mr. Bryan expressed remorse to Arbery’s family. Mr. Bryan said he was sorry, adding, “I never intended any harm to him, and I never would have played any role in what happened if I knew then what I know now.”
Greg McMichael said, “The loss you’ve endured is 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.”
The elder McMichael also apologized to his wife, Leigh, who supported him and their son through their arrests and two high-profile trials. “You are a better wife than I deserve,” he said, his voice cracking.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson sat in the courthouse with the Arbery family. The family asked Judge Wood to give the three men the stiffest sentences possible. Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, said to Travis McMichael, “You don’t deserve no mercy because you didn’t give him none.” He said to the judge, “They need to be sent to state prison where they’ll sit there and rot.”
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, tearfully said there isn’t a day she doesn’t think about what happened to her son. “I feel every shot that was fired.”
Ahmaud Arbery’s aunt, Ruby Arbery, told Greg McMichael, “You failed your son. You had him believing that what he did was above the law.”
Judge Wood denied all three requests for the men to be sent to federal prison, explaining that Georgia was the first to arrest, try, convict, and sentence the men. She said it is typical that defendants who are later convicted of federal crimes begin serving time in state prisons.
Mr. Bryan is the only defendant who has a chance of one day leaving prison. Judge Wood said that he should be distinguished from the McMichaels because he had been unarmed. “By the time you serve your federal sentence you will be close to 90 years old,” the judge told Bryan, moments after his apology. “Then again, Mr. Arbery never got the chance to be 26.”
Judge Wood turned the three men over to the Georgia Department of Corrections. This brought to a close a two years of criminal proceedings.
Outside the courthouse, Wanda Cooper Jones said she accepted Greg McMichael’s apology and appreciated him publicly acknowledging his actions. “Unfortunately, his apology doesn’t bring back my son, but I do accept it.”
Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said, “The Justice Department’s prosecution of this case and the court’s sentences today make clear that hate crimes have no place in our country, and that the Department will be unrelenting in our efforts to hold accountable those who perpetrate them. Protecting civil rights and combatting white supremacist violence was a founding purpose of the Justice Department, and one that we will continue to pursue with the urgency it demands.”
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division said: “It was important that this murder was prosecuted for what it was — a brutal and abhorrent racially-motivated hate crime. Ahmaud Arbery should be alive today. The tragic murder of Mr. Arbery reminds us that hate-fueled violence targeting black people remains a modern-day threat in our country, and we must use every tool available to hold perpetrators accountable. We hope that this sentencing ends one painful chapter for the family of Ahmaud Arbery, the Brunswick community, and the nation as a whole.”