The three men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery were sentenced to life in prison Friday, and two of the defendants, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael, were denied the possibility of parole.
William “Roddie” Bryan — their neighbor who helped the McMichaels chase down the 25-year-old as he jogged through their Satilla Shores, Ga., neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020, and used his cellphone to record video of Arbery being gunned down — received a sentence from Judge Timothy Walmsley of life in prison with the possibility of parole after serving at least 30 years behind bars.
Travis McMichael, at 35 the youngest of the three convicted men and the only defendant found guilty on each count, was found to have pulled the trigger twice on a shotgun, administering the fatal shots. Gregory McMichael, 65, Travis’s father, watched the scuffle from the bed of a pickup truck, while Bryan filmed the crime from his own vehicle.
Regarding the sentences, Walmsley said during the sometimes emotional hearing that he had “spent a lot of time thinking about this.”
“As we all now know based upon the verdict that was rendered in this court in November, Ahmaud Arbery was murdered. It’s a tragedy; it's a tragedy on many, many levels,” Walmsley added.
The judge noted that Arbery was chased for at least five minutes by men in a pickup truck armed with a shotgun and a revolver and tried to put that situation into context.
“What I'm going to do is to sit silently for one minute,” he said, “and that one minute represents a fraction of the time that Ahmaud Arbery was running in Satilla Shores.”
Following that dramatic minute of silence, the judge said, “When I thought about this, I thought from a lot of different angles, and I kept coming back to the terror that must have been in the mind of the young man running through Satilla Shores.”
Representing the prosecution, Senior Assistant District Attorney Linda Dunikoski said the state sought life without parole for the McMichaels “based primarily on the evidence presented in this case,” and because of a demonstrated pattern of vigilantism.
“You wait for the professionals to show up,” Dunikoski said of the decision by the three men to take the law into their own hands and pursue Arbery despite being unclear whether he had committed any actual crime.
The attorneys for the McMichaels argued that their clients deserved to be granted the possibility of parole. Bob Rubin, who represented Travis McMichael, painted him as a father, a friend to many and a hard worker.
“We’re asking the court to reserve the harshest possible sentence under the law for those who deserve it, for the worst of the worst,” he said. “Nothing in Travis McMichael’s life suggests that he is a danger to society now or will be a danger to society 30 years from now, after he has time to think, to work, to grow.”
Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, asked for the court to show his client leniency because there is no evidence he intended to kill Arbery on that day.
During victim impact statements, Arbery’s family recounted the pain they’ve experienced since his death.
“The man who killed my son has sat in this courtroom every single day next to his father. I’ll never get that chance to sit next to my son ever again,” said Marcus Arbery, the victim’s father.
He continued, “Not only did they lynch my son in broad daylight, but they killed him while he was doing what he loved,” adding that running was when Ahmaud “felt most alive, most free, and they took all that from him.”
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said her son “had a smile so bright, it lit up the room.”
“He was always a loving baby who seemed to never be tired of hugs and cuddling and kisses,” she added.
The trial took place in Glynn County, Ga., where roughly 1 in 4 residents is Black. Following more than 10 hours of deliberation, the jury, which included only one Black person and 11 whites, found all three of the defendants guilty of murdering Arbery.
Following a string of high-profile court cases in the U.S. involving the deaths of African Americans, Walmsley said that Arbery’s killing “holds us all accountable.”
“I read somewhere, and I don’t remember where it was, that at a minimum Ahmaud Arbery’s death should force us to consider expanding our definition of what a neighbor may be and how we treat them,” Walmsley said. “I argue that maybe a neighbor is more than the people who just own property around your house. I also believe that in assuming the worst in others, we show our worst character. Assuming the best in others is always the best course of action, and maybe those are the grand lessons from this case.”
Before the hearing ended, Dunikoski filed a motion asking that the judge amend the sentence so as to prohibit any of the three convicted men from making “any money off their actions, such as a book deal, a movie deal, social media deal, or anything along any way, shape or form make any money off this experience, this conviction and this trial.”
Gough argued that doing so would impair Bryan’s ability to raise money for possible appeals of the decision.
Walmsley asked for Dunikoski to submit a formal request to the court for his review.
The McMichaels and Bryan are still facing federal hate crime charges, with jury selection set to start on Feb. 7. Prosecutors in U.S. District Court will argue that in addition to taking his life, the three white men violated Arbery’s civil rights.