Federal judge: Ahmaud Arbery's killers get a second life sentence

Travis McMichael and Greg McMichael were sentenced by a U.S. District Court judge to a life sentence Monday for chasing down and killing Ahmaud Arbery whom they wrongfully suspected of burglary. William Bryan, who recorded a video of the event, was sentenced to 35 years in prison. 

Sarah Blake Morgan/AP
A mural of Ahmaud Arbery stands tall in Brunswick, Georgia, on May 17, 2020. In February 2020, Mr. Arbery was shot and killed while on a run by three white men who falsely claimed he was a burglar.

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.

Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael was sentenced by U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood in the port city of Brunswick. Their punishment is largely symbolic, as both were sentenced earlier this year to life without parole in a Georgia state court for Mr. Arbery’s murder. William “Roddie” Bryan, who recorded cellphone video of the slaying, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

Judge Wood said Travis McMichael had received a “fair trial.”

“And it’s not lost on the court that it was the kind of trial that Ahmaud Arbery did not receive before he was shot and killed,” the judge said.

The sentences imposed Monday brought an end to more than two years of criminal proceedings against the men responsible for Mr. Arbery’s slaying, which along with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky fueled a wave of protests across the country against the killings of unarmed Black people.

The three defendants were convicted in February of federal hate crime charges. 

The McMichaels armed themselves with guns and used a pickup truck to chase Mr. Arbery after he ran past their home on Feb. 23, 2020. Mr. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Mr. McMichael blasting Mr. Arbery with a shotgun.

The McMichaels told police they suspected Mr. Arbery was a burglar. Investigators determined he was unarmed and had committed no crimes.

Mr. Arbery’s killing on Feb. 23, 2020, became part of a larger national reckoning over racial injustice and killings of unarmed Black people including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. Those two cases also resulted in the Justice Department bringing federal charges.

Judge Wood scheduled back-to-back hearings Monday to individually sentence each of the defendants, starting with Travis McMichael, who killed Mr. Arbery with a shotgun after the street chase initiated by his father and joined by a neighbor, who are also white.

A jury convicted all three defendants in February of federal hate crimes, concluding that they violated Mr. Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because of his race. All three men were also found guilty of attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels face additional penalties for using firearms to commit a violent crime.

A state Superior Court judge imposed life sentences for all three men in January for Mr. Arbery’s murder, with both McMichaels denied any chance of parole.

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 a 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.

Mr. Arbery’s family has insisted the McMichaels and Mr. Bryan should serve their sentences in a state prison, arguing a federal penitentiary wouldn’t be as tough. His parents objected forcefully before the federal trial when both McMichaels sought a plea deal that would have included a request to transfer them to federal prison. The judge ended up rejecting the plea agreement.

A federal judge doesn’t have the authority to order the state to relinquish its lawful custody of inmates to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, said Ed Tarver, an Augusta lawyer and former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia. He said the judge could request that the state corrections agency turn the defendants over to a federal prison.

The McMichaels armed themselves with guns and jumped in a truck to chase Mr. Arbery after spotting him running past their home outside the port city of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Mr. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck, helping cut off Mr. Arbery’s escape. He also recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Mr. Arbery at close range as Mr. Arbery threw punches and grabbed at the shotgun.

The McMichaels told police they suspected Mr. Arbery had been stealing from a nearby house under construction. But authorities later concluded he was unarmed and had committed no crimes. Mr. Arbery’s family has long insisted he was merely out jogging.

Still, more than two months passed before any charges were filed in Mr. Arbery’s death. The McMichaels and Mr. Bryan were arrested only after the graphic video of the shooting leaked online and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police.

During the February hate crimes trial, prosecutors fortified their case that Mr. 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 Mr. Bryan used racist slurs and made disparaging comments about Black people. A woman testified to hearing an angry rant from Greg McMichael in 2015 in which he said: “All those Blacks are nothing but trouble.”

Defense attorneys for the three men argued the McMichaels and Mr. Bryan didn’t pursue Mr. Arbery because of his race but acted on an earnest – though erroneous – suspicion that Mr. Arbery had committed crimes in their neighborhood.

This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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