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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Three men are found guilty of hate crimes in Arbery killing

Wanda Cooper Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, leaves the courthouse after a jury determined on Tuesday, Feb. 22, 2022, that the three white Georgia men who murdered her son violated a federal hate-crime statute by depriving Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, of his right to use a public street because of the color of his skin.

By Tariro Mzezewa, Audra D.S. Burch and Richard Fausset

A jury earlier this week found the three white Georgia men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery guilty of a federal hate crime, determining that they were motivated by racism when they chased the 25-year-old Black man through their neighborhood.

The case was one of the most high-profile hate crime trials in years and came after a rash of acts of violence against African Americans, including Arbery and George Floyd, led to protests and soul-searching around the nation. It was seen as a victory for the Justice Department, which has pledged to make such cases a priority.

While legal analysts say that hate crimes are especially difficult to prove, federal prosecutors in the Georgia trial presented voluminous evidence of the defendants’ racist beliefs and crude language, leaving some jurors visibly shaken. It took them roughly four hours to reach a verdict. When it was read aloud in court, some jurors wept.

National civil rights leaders hailed the conviction as a victory for racial justice.

“As the nation continues to grapple with racially motivated violence by police and vigilantes who shroud themselves in self-appointed authority, the jury sent a powerful message: We see you for what you are, and we will not tolerate your deadly campaign of intimidation,” said Marc H. Morial, CEO of the National Urban League. “This verdict draws a clear line in the sand.”

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she never doubted that the jury would find the defendants guilty, but her satisfaction was tempered with grief.

“As a mother I will never heal,” she said. “They gave us a small sense of victory, but we will never get victory because Ahmaud is dead.”

In addition to the hate crime convictions, the jury also found the three men — Travis McMichael, 36, his father, Gregory McMichael, 66, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — guilty of attempted kidnapping and found the McMichaels guilty of one count each of brandishing or discharging a firearm during a violent crime.

The men now face up to life in prison for the federal crimes, on top of the life sentences they received in state court this year after being convicted of Arbery’s murder, with only Bryan eligible for parole. The federal convictions ensure that the defendants will receive significant prison time even if their state convictions are overturned or their sentences reduced on appeal.

As a number of recent cases of violent crimes against African Americans have worked their way through the legal system, the Georgia case stood out for forcing a blunt examination of racism in the courtroom.

On Feb. 23, 2020, the three men used a pair of trucks to chase Arbery, who was running through their neighborhood, until the younger McMichael shot him three times at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun.

Over a week of testimony, federal jurors were exposed to ugly expressions of bigotry by the three men, and then asked to decide whether those attitudes meant they had gone after Arbery because of his “race and color.”

Lawyers for the three defendants argued that the men had not been motivated by racial animus, but rather because Arbery seemed to them like a potential crime suspect. Gregory McMichael’s lawyer, A.J. Balbo, told the jury that his client had not been out to hunt down a Black person that day, but rather to go after Arbery specifically, after a police officer showed him security camera images of Arbery entering a nearby house that was under construction.

Arbery had entered the house numerous times in the weeks before the shooting, including the moments before the chase began, although there is no evidence he stole or disturbed the property inside. Twelve days before the shooting, Travis McMichael had also seen Arbery outside the house and had called 911, claiming he saw Arbery reach toward his waistband, a gesture, Travis McMichael said, that made it seem like he could have been reaching for a gun.

Prosecuting hate crime cases is considered difficult because the government must prove not only that defendants harbor racist views but that their crimes were specifically motivated by bigotry.

In this case, evidence of the defendants’ racism proved to be voluminous and harsh, including numerous uses of racist epithets and racial insults. The government’s case — with its video of Arbery gasping for his final breaths on the pavement and testimony that the defendants did not render aid to him — seemed to take an emotional toll on jurors, some of whom could be seen crying. Last week, one of the jurors asked court officials if counseling was available.

“At the end of the day, the evidence in this case will prove that if Ahmaud Arbery had been white, he would have gone for a jog, checked out a house under construction and been home in time for Sunday supper,” Bobbi Bernstein, a Justice Department lawyer, told the jury. “Instead he went out for a jog, and he ended up running for his life. Instead he ended up bleeding to death, alone and scared, in the middle of the street.”

After the verdict, one defense lawyer declined to comment and a second could not be reached. J. Pete Theodocion, the lawyer for Bryan, said he had been optimistic about his client’s chances. “We’ll have to respect the decision of the jury and move on from here,” he said.

The verdict was an important victory for the Justice Department. Attorney General Merrick Garland said at a news conference that “today’s verdict makes clear that the Justice Department will continue to use every resource at its disposal to confront unlawful acts of hate and to hold accountable those who perpetrate them.”

The death of Arbery was met with revulsion from conservative and liberal lawmakers in Georgia. It prompted state legislators to significantly weaken a citizen’s arrest law that one local prosecutor had cited soon after the shooting to argue that the three men should not be arrested. It also prompted them to pass a state hate crime law. This month, the Legislature also passed a resolution declaring Wednesday, the second anniversary of the killing, “Ahmaud Arbery Day.” Memorial events are planned in several Georgia cities.

As the verdicts were read aloud in court Tuesday morning, Arbery’s parents and other family members lowered their heads, some praying. “Thank God,” said Marcus Arbery Sr., his father.

The only Black man on the jury, who also was the foreman, wiped tears from his face as the verdict for each charge was read. The woman seated beside him also cried throughout Tuesday’s proceedings.

“Ahmaud will continue to rest in peace,” said Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother. “But he will now begin to rest in power.”

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