SAVANNAH, Ga. – The white father and son who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery in a Georgia neighborhood each received a second life prison sentence Monday — for committing federal hate crimes, months after getting their first for murder — at a hearing that brought a close to more than two years of criminal proceedings.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood handed down the sentences against Travis McMichael, 36, and his father, Greg McMichael, 66, reiterating the gravity of the February 2020 killing that shattered their Brunswick community. William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, who recorded cellphone video of the slaying, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
“A young man is dead. Ahmaud Arbery will be forever 25. And what happened, a jury found, happened because he’s Black,” Wood said.
The McMichaels were previously sentenced to life without parole in state court for Arbery’s murder and had asked the judge to divert them to a federal prison to serve their sentences, saying they were worried about their safety in the state prison system. Bryan had sought to serve his federal sentence first. Wood declined all three requests.
The sentences imposed Monday brought an end to the second trial against the men responsible for Arbery’s slaying, which along with the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in Kentucky fueled a wave of protests across the country against the killings of unarmed Black people.
“The Justice Department’s prosecution of this case and the court’s sentences today 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,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a news release. “Protecting civil rights and combatting white supremacist violence was a founding purpose of the Justice Department, and one that we will continue to pursue with the urgency it demands.”
In February, a federal jury convicted the McMichaels and Bryan of violating Arbery’s civil rights, concluding they targeted him because of his race. All three were also found guilty of attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels were convicted of using guns in the commission of a violent crime.
The McMichaels armed themselves with guns and used a pickup truck to chase Arbery after he ran past their home on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan, a neighbor, joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery with a shotgun. The McMichaels told police they suspected Arbery was a burglar, but investigators determined he was unarmed and had committed no crimes.
“I’m very thankful,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told reporters outside the courthouse after all three sentences had been imposed. “It’s been a long fight. I’m so thankful God gave us the strength to continue to fight.”
The hearings marked the first time the men involved in the deadly chase expressed any remorse to Arbery’s family. Only Travis McMichael, who fired the fatal shots, chose to remain silent when given a chance to speak in court.
Greg McMichael told Arbery's family their loss was “beyond description.”
“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.”
Bryan said he was sorry.
“I never intended any harm to him, and I never would have played any role in what happened if I knew then what I know now," Bryan said.
In giving Bryan a lower sentence, Wood noted he had not brought a gun to the pursuit of Arbery and preserved his cellphone video, which was crucial to the prosecutions.
Travis McMichael's attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, said a lighter sentence would be more consistent with what similarly charged defendants have received in other cases, noting that the officer who killed Floyd in Minneapolis, Derek Chauvin, got 21 years in prison for violating Floyd’s civil rights, though he was not charged with targeting Floyd because of his race.
Greg McMichael's attorney, A.J. Balbo, also cited the Chauvin sentence as well as his client's age and health problems, which he said include a stroke and depression.
During the February hate crimes trial, prosecutors fortified their case that Arbery’s killing was motivated by racism by showing the jury roughly two dozen text messages and social media posts in which Travis McMichael and Bryan used racist slurs and made disparaging comments about Black people.
Prosecutor Christopher Perras said the trial evidence proved "what so many people felt in their hearts when they watched the video of Ahmaud’s tragic and unnecessary death: This would have never happened if he had been white.”
A state Superior Court judge imposed life sentences for the McMichaels and Bryan in January for Arbery's murder, with both McMichaels denied any chance of parole. All three defendants have remained jailed in coastal Glynn County, in the custody of U.S. marshals, while awaiting sentencing after their federal convictions.
Because they were first charged and convicted of murder in a state court, they will be turned over to the Georgia Department of Corrections to serve their life terms in a state prison.
Copeland argued unsuccessfully for Travis McMichael to remain in federal custody, saying he has received hundreds of threats that he will be killed soon after arriving at state prison and that his photo has been circulated there on illegal phones.
“I am concerned your honor that my client effectively faces a back door death penalty," she said, adding that “retribution and revenge” were not sentencing factors, even for a defendant who is “publicly reviled.”
Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery Sr., said Travis McMichael had shown his son no mercy and deserved to “rot" in state prison.
“You killed him because he was a Black man and you hate Black people," he said. “You deserve no mercy.”
Associated Press writer Sudhin Thanawala contributed to this report from Atlanta.