SAVANNAH, Ga. — The father and son who are serving life in prison for Ahmaud Arbery’s murder were again sentenced to life in prison Monday on federal hate crime charges.
Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery, will serve his federal sentence of life plus 10 years. McMichael, 36, declined to address the court. His father Gregory, who initiated the deadly pursuit, will serve life in state prison plus seven years. They both will serve the federal sentences concurrently with the state time.
Their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, who was also convicted of murder, was set to be sentenced later Monday. A jury in February found that the three men, who are white, violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because of his race. Arbery was Black.
Although the men are already serving life sentences, the additional punishments mark “an important moment for the Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice and an important moment for the federal judiciary,” said Ayesha Bell Hardaway, an associate professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law and co-director of the school’s Social Justice Institute.
“It is a rejection of our nation’s ugly history when public lynchings were celebrated with family picnics,” she added.
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Arbery, 25, was killed on Feb. 23, 2020, after the McMichaels grabbed guns and jumped in a truck to chase Arbery after spotting him running past their home outside Brunswick. Bryan joined the chase in his own truck, helped block Arbery’s escape and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery at close range as the men struggled.
Prosecutors in the federal trial, which lasted a week, included evidence they said showed the men killed Arbery out of racial animus, which included their use of racial slurs and repeated racist characterization of Black people who committed alleged crimes. Defense attorneys argued the McMichaels and Bryan pursued Arbery not because of his race but because of an earnest — though erroneous — suspicion that Arbery had committed crimes in their neighborhood.
The McMichaels and Bryan were found guilty of one count each of interference with rights and attempted kidnapping in February. The McMichaels were also convicted of one count of using, carrying and brandishing – and firing, in Travis McMichael’s case – a gun during and in relation to a crime of violence.
Arbery’s killing helped fuel a nationwide racial reckoning over the killings of unarmed Black people including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky, two cases that also resulted in federal charges.
On Monday, several members of Arbery’s family asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence and insisted he serve his time in state prison.
While Monday’s sentencing hearings signal the end of the lengthy legal process for Arbery’s killers, his mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, noted that former Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson is still awaiting trial on charges of violating her oath of office and hindering a police investigation. Prosecutors allege Johnson used her position to protect McMichael and his son.
Cooper-Jones said she’d like to see consequences for Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, who initially claimed the McMichael and Bryan acted in self defense.
“The journey is not over, we still have more to do,” she said at press conference following McMichael’s sentencing.
Hate crime sentences not just symbolic
Although the defendants are already serving a life sentence, experts have said the federal conviction in Arbery’s death are not just symbolic. The additional sentences ensure they will serve prison time even if their murder convictions are overturned on appeal.
Unlike the state murder charges, federal hate crime convictions also acknowledge the racist motivations of what many called a modern-day lynching, experts said.
“It was worth it to name this as a white-supremacy-inspired murder and not to whitewash this by deemphasizing the racist motive here,” said Justin Hansford, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Civil Rights Center at Howard University. “It’s important as a community that we name what is happening as part and parcel of white supremacy.”
Experts have also said the case shows the Justice Department is taking prosecuting crimes motivated by hate more seriously.
Although hate crimes reports have risen in recent years, the offenses are rarely prosecuted. Just two people were convicted of federal hate crimes in Georgia from 2005 to 2019, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Georgia did not have hate crime legislation until after Arbery’s death.
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Defendants ask for leniency
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. Each were denied appeals in the federal hate crimes trial, according to an online court filing.
Travis McMichael’s attorney Amy Copeland asked Monday for her client be placed in federal custody first before he served in time in state prison, due to death threats he’d received. “I am concerned my client faces a backdoor death penalty,” she said.
Gregory McMichael’s attorney also asked for leniency in his sentencing and to serve part of the sentences in federal prison, citing conditions of the Georgia State Prisons. His attorney, A.J. Balbo, expressed concerns about his client’s health and argued his sentencing shouldn’t exceed that of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer convicted of killing George Floyd outside a convenience store. Chauvin was sentenced to 21 years in prison.
Gregory McMichael, 66, spoke publicly for the time time in court. He apologized to his wife and son and addressed the Arbery family’s grief.
“I’m sure my words mean very little to you, but I want to assure you, I never wanted any of this to happen,” he said. “There was no malice in my heart or my son’s heart that day.”
During back-to-back hearings, members of Arbery’s family asked the judge to impose the maximum sentence and have the McMichaels serve their sentences in Georgia state prison rather than in a federal penitentiary, where conditions are seen as better.
“How can you dare ask for mercy? You didn’t give my Quez mercy,” Marcus Arbery said, referring to his son by his middle name, during Travis McMichael’s sentencing.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood denied the McMichaels’ request, citing a rule that typically requires defendants to serve their sentence in the jurisdiction they were first arrested, tried and convicted.
Meanwhile, Bryan’s attorney called his client’s decision to join the McMichaels’ chase of Arbery misguided but emphasized Bryan did not seek Arbery with the intention of killing him, noting he did not leave his house armed, according to his sentencing memorandum filed Sunday.
“The evidence showed Bryan acting out of ignorance not hatred, and without the near expectation of potential violence as the McMichaels. When the McMichaels pulled off in their truck armed with firearms, they signed up for a possible shootout,” Bryan’s attorney J. Pete Theodocian wrote in the memo.
Theodocian requested that Bryan be sentenced to less than a life sentence for his involvement in Arbery’s killing.
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Contributing: The Associated Press
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