A judge in Georgia sentenced Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan to life in prison on Friday for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was running through their mostly white neighborhood in February 2020 when they chased him down and killed him.
Under Georgia law, murder carries a mandatory life sentence unless prosecutors seek the death penalty. For the judge, Timothy Walmsley, the main decision was whether to grant father and son Greg McMichael, 66, and Travis McMichael, 35, and their neighbor, Bryan, 52, a chance to earn parole.
Arbery’s family had made powerful statements, asking Walmsley to show no leniency.
Before sentencing, Walmsley said: “Ahmaud Arbery was hunted down and shot, and he was killed because individuals here in the courtroom took the law into their own hands.”
Walmsley said Arbery left his home for a jog and ended up running for his life for five minutes as the men chased him in pickup trucks then cornered him. The judge paused for a minute, to help drive home a sense of what that time must have been like for Arbery.
“When I thought about this,” he said, “I thought from a lot of different angles. I kept coming back to the terror that must have been in the mind of the young man running through Satilla Shores.”
The McMichaels will spend the rest of their lives in prison. Walmsley ruled that Bryan could seek parole after 30 years, the minimum sentence allowed.
Arbery’s mother said she suffered an intense loss made worse by a trial where the men’s defense was that Arbery made bad choices.
“This wasn’t a case of mistaken identity or mistaken fact,” Wanda Cooper-Jones said.
“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. And when they couldn’t sufficiently scare or intimidate him, they killed him.”
Cooper-Jones rebutted a point made by a defense lawyer that caused outrage. During the trial in November, Laura Hogue made a reference to Ahmaud Arbery’s appearance many found egregious and racist.
Hogue said: “Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts, with no socks, to cover his long dirty toenails.”
On Friday, Cooper-Jones said her son was sometimes messy.
“He sometimes refused to wear socks or take good care of his good clothing. I wish he would have cut and cleaned his toenails before he went out for that jog that day. I guess he would have if he knew he would be murdered.”
Marcus Arbery Sr, Ahmaud’s father, also addressed the court. He said: “When I close my eyes, I see his execution in my mind, over and over. I will see that for the rest of my life.
“Not only did they lynch my son in broad daylight, they killed him while he was doing what he loved more than anything: running. That’s when he felt most alive, most free, and they took all that from him.”
Arbery’s sister, Jasmine Arbery, described her brother as a positive thinker with a big personality. Weeping, she told the judge her brother had dark skin “that glistened in the sunlight” and “thick, curly hair and an athletic build”.
“These are the qualities that made these men assume that Ahmaud was a dangerous criminal and chase him with guns drawn,” she said. “To me, those qualities reflect a young man full of life and energy who looked like me and the people I loved.”
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski asked the judge for life without parole for the McMichaels and the possibility of parole for Bryan. But she said all deserved that mandatory life sentence.
The McMichaels grabbed guns and jumped in a truck to chase Arbery, 25, after spotting him running on 23 February 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit and recorded video of Travis McMichael firing close-range shotgun blasts.
The killing went largely unnoticed until two months later, when video was leaked, touching off a national outcry. The Georgia bureau of investigation arrested all three men.
The attorney Robert Rubin argued that Travis McMichael deserved the possibility of parole as he fired only after “Mr Arbery came at him and grabbed the gun”.
“This was not a planned murder,” Rubin said. “This was a fight over a gun.”
Hogue, for Greg McMichael, said her client “did not view his son firing that shotgun with anything other than fear and sadness”.
Bryan’s lawyer said he showed remorse and cooperated with police.
Next month, the McMichaels and Bryan face a second trial on federal hate crime charges. Prosecutors will argue that the men targeted Arbery because he was Black.
On Friday, Ben Crump, a leading civil rights attorney, said: “These brutal crimes nearly went unpunished because of the deep corruption that pervades so many of our systems.”
He added: “The tragic murder of Ahmaud Arbery must not be in vain. America, we are showing progress. Now is not the time to retreat. We must continue to demand better from law enforcement, from our justice system and from our society as a whole.”