Two of Arbery’s killers get federal life sentences; third gets 35 years
By Richard Fausset
Before the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery were sentenced earlier this week on federal hate crime charges, they asked a judge to consider not only the length of the sentences, but also the location, with one lawyer arguing that if her client went straight to Georgia’s dangerous state prison system, he would be subject to “vigilante justice.”
The men did not get what they asked for.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said she had “neither the authority nor the inclination” to send the three white men to federal prison in lieu of the Georgia prison system, where safety issues are so dire that they are the subject of an investigation by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Justice Department.
Wood said that the men would go to state prison first, because they were first prosecuted for murder by state authorities. At the same time, the judge handed down severe sentences to the men for their federal crimes, which included the hate-crime charge of “interference with rights,” and attempted kidnapping.
Travis McMichael, 36, who fired on Arbery with a shotgun, was given a life sentence. So was McMichael’s 66-year-old father, Gregory McMichael. Their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — who joined the McMichaels in chasing Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, through their neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon in February 2020 — received a sentence of 35 years.
The federal sentences will run concurrently with the life sentences stemming from each man’s murder conviction in state court, for which only Bryan is deemed eligible for parole — and then only after 30 years.
In a statement, Attorney General Merrick Garland said the sentences “make clear that hate crimes have no place in our country, and that the department will be unrelenting in our efforts to hold accountable those who perpetrate them.”
The courtroom drama Monday — which featured rare words of remorse in open court from Bryan and the elder McMichael — closed a chapter “in an excruciatingly painful journey” as federal prosecutor Tara M. Lyons put it, “for Ahmaud Arbery’s family and for an entire nation that has wept for Ahmaud along with his loved ones.”
Long federal sentences were expected for the three men after their convictions in Wood’s courtroom in February. The idea that they should be able to serve at least some of their time in federal prison, as opposed to Georgia’s prison system, became an emotional flashpoint when it was first offered up in proposed plea deals for the McMichaels that were presented to the court in January; it was eventually rejected by Wood.
In a filing last week, Amy Lee Copeland, Travis McMichael’s lawyer, wrote that her client had received “hundreds of threats,” including “statements that his image has been circulated through the state prison system on contraband cellphones, that people are ‘waiting for him,’ that he should not go into the yard, and that correctional officers have promised a willingness (whether for pay or for free) to keep certain doors unlocked and backs turned to allow inmates to harm him.”
But Arbery’s family members came to the federal courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia, on Monday and argued that the three men deserved no special treatment after their own notorious acts of vigilantism against Arbery.
“These three devils have broken my heart into pieces,” Marcus Arbery Sr., Arbery’s father, said in court Monday. He added that he hoped the men would “rot in the state prison.”
In three separate hearings, the defense lawyers for the three men asked for at least the first part of their clients’ terms to be served in the federal system. Copeland noted the “rich irony” that her client was concerned about vigilante violence. But she argued for a “cooling off” period in federal prison to last for the duration of the appeals process. Putting her client in state prison now, she said, would “effectively” result in “a back-door death penalty.”
In announcing their investigation, federal officials said the safety problems in Georgia’s prison system had been compounded by staffing shortages, training issues and other factors. Copeland cited an analysis from Georgia Public Broadcasting that found that 53 homicides had occurred in Georgia’s state prisons in 2020 and 2021.
The McMichaels and Bryan are currently being held in a local jail, the Glynn County Detention Center, where they have been since they were arrested in May 2020. They had walked free for weeks after Travis McMichael shot Arbery at close range with a shotgun.
The fatal shooting came after the men, in a pair of pickup trucks, chased Arbery, who was on foot, through their suburban neighborhood of Satilla Shores, just outside of Brunswick. The chase, and the killing, were captured on video that was widely circulated on the internet, sparking outrage worldwide and assertions from civil rights leaders that Arbery had been subject to a modern-day lynching.
Moments before the chase, Arbery had been inside a house under construction; the McMichaels had suspected him of committing a string of property crimes. Arbery’s relatives said Arbery, an avid runner, had been out for a Sunday jog. In court proceedings, prosecutors argued that all three defendants harbored racial animus toward Black people.
In court Monday, A.J. Balbo, the lawyer for Gregory McMichael, asked for leniency, noting that his client suffered from heart problems and bouts of depression and anxiety. The lawyer for Bryan, J. Pete Theodocion, noted that his client, unlike the McMichaels, had not grabbed a gun when he joined the chase. Prosecutors noted, however, that Bryan had used his truck to block Arbery as he tried to run out of the neighborhood.
Wood said she had spent a long time thinking about the appropriate sentences for the men. At one point, she referred to the February 2022 federal trial that she presided over, in which all three men were found guilty of federal hate crimes.
It had been a fair trial, Wood said — “the kind of trial that Ahmaud Arbery did not receive before he was shot and killed.”
The three men did not take the stand during their trials. But on Monday, Bryan apologized to Arbery’s family: “I never intended any harm to him,” he said.
Travis McMichael declined to address the court. But his father spoke before his sentencing. “The loss that you’ve endured is beyond description,” Gregory McMichael said to the Arbery family. “I’m sure that my words mean very little to you. But I want to assure you, I never wanted any of this to happen.”
The McMichaels were each given extra sentences, to run consecutively rather than concurrently, for their use of firearms in the incident. Bryan was technically given 447 months, with 27 months off for time served.
“By the time you’ve served your federal sentence, you will be close to 90 years old,” the judge said to Bryan. “But, again, Mr. Arbery never got the chance to be 26.”