In court, Arbery’s sister recalled her brother’s humor, describing him as a positive thinker with a big personality. She told the judge her brother had dark skin “that glistened in the sunlight,” thick, curly hair and an athletic build, factors that made him a target to the men who pursued him.
“These are the qualities that made these men assume that Ahmaud was a dangerous criminal and chase them with guns drawn. To me, those qualities reflect a young man full of life and energy who looked like me and the people I loved,” Jasmine Arbery said.
Murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison under Georgia law unless prosecutors seek the death penalty, which they opted against for Arbery’s killing. For Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley, the main decision will be whether to grant father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan an eventual chance to earn parole.
Arbery’s mother asked for the maximum sentence, saying she suffered a personal, intense loss made worse by a trial where the men’s defense was that Arbery made bad choices that led to his death.
“This wasn’t a case of mistaken identity or mistaken fact. They chose to target my son because they didn’t want him in their community. They chose to treat him differently than other people who frequently visited their community,” Wanda Cooper-Jones said. “And when they couldn’t sufficiently scare or intimidate him, they killed him.”
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski asked the judge for life without parole for Travis and Greg McMichael and the possibility of parole for Bryan. But she said all deserved that mandatory life sentence for showing “no empathy for the trapped and terrified Ahmaud Arbery.”
Whether the judge grants parole, either choice amounts to a stiff sentence. Even if the judge allows a possibility of parole, the McMichaels and Bryan will have to serve at least 30 years in prison first.
For Travis McMichael, who is 35, “that could make a significant difference,” said Page Pate, an Atlanta criminal defense attorney who isn’t involved in the case. “For the two older guys, it’s effectively a full life sentence.”
Greg McMichael recently turned 66, and Bryan is 52.
The guilty verdicts against the men handed down the day before Thanksgiving prompted a victory celebration outside the Glynn County courthouse for those who saw Arbery’s death as part of a larger national reckoning on racial injustice.
All three men were also convicted of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Maximum prison terms for those counts range from five to 20 years. The judge was likely to allow those additional penalties to be served simultaneously with the life sentences for murder.
The McMichaels grabbed guns and jumped in a pickup truck to chase the 25-year-old Arbery after spotting him running in their neighborhood outside the Georgia port city of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael firing close-range shotgun blasts into Arbery as he threw punches and grabbed for the weapon.
The killing went largely unnoticed until two months later, when the graphic video was leaked online and touched off a national outcry. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police and soon arrested all three men.
Defense attorneys argued that the McMichaels were attempting a legal citizen’s arrest when they set off after Arbery, seeking to detain and question him after he was seen running from a nearby home under construction.
Travis McMichael testified that he shot Arbery in self-defense. He said Arbery turned and attacked with his fists while running past the truck where McMichael stood with his shotgun.
At the time of his death, Arbery had enrolled at a technical college and was preparing to study to become an electrician like his uncles.
Defense attorneys have said they plan to appeal the convictions. They have 30 days after sentencing to file them.
Next month, the McMichaels and Bryan face a second trial, this time in U.S. District Court on federal hate crime charges. A judge has set jury selection to begin Feb. 7. Prosecutors will argue that the three men violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he was Black.
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