Two of the three white males who pursued and murdered Ahmaud Arbery as he ran through a Georgia neighborhood in early 2020 were sentenced to life in federal prison for hate crimes on Monday. Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Arbery, and his father, Greg McMichael, had previously been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole following a state trial in Georgia for their involvement in the murder.
William “Roddie” Bryan, the guy who captured cellphone footage of Arbery’s murder, was sentenced to 35 years in prison on Monday evening after his participation in the deadly pursuit was designated a federal hate crime.
Months after receiving life terms for murder in state court, all three men were sentenced on Monday for federal hate crimes committed during the chase and murder of the 25-year-old African-American man.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood set consecutive hearings to sentence each defendant, beginning with Travis McMichael, who discharged a shotgun at Arbery after his father and Bryan launched a street pursuit.
On February 23, 2020, the murder of Arbery became part of a greater national crisis over racial injustice and the murders of unarmed Black individuals, such as George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky. In each of these instances, the Justice Department filed federal charges.
In February, a jury found the three men guilty of federal hate crimes for violating Arbery’s civil rights and targeting him because of his color. Additionally, all three men were convicted guilty of attempted abduction, and the McMichaels face extra sentences for using guns to conduct a violent crime.
In the end, any sanctions they suffer in federal court may be more symbolic than anything else. In January, a state Superior Court judge imposed life terms on all three men for the murder of Arbery, denying parole to both McMichaels.
After their January federal convictions, the three defendants have remained incarcerated in coastal Glynn County, in the custody of U.S. marshals, awaiting sentence.
Because they were first prosecuted and convicted of murder in a state court, they must be transferred to the Georgia Department of Corrections to carry out their life sentences.
Travis and Greg McMichael petitioned the judge last week to redirect them to a federal prison, arguing that they would not be safe in a Georgia prison system under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for violence amongst convicts.
Arbery’s family has asked that McMichael and Bryan spend their terms in a state jail, believing that a federal prison would be less rigorous. Before the federal trial, his parents opposed vehemently when both McMichaels sought a plea bargain that would have included a request to send them to federal prison. The court rejected the plea bargain.
Ed Tarver, a lawyer from Augusta and former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Georgia, said that a federal court lacks the jurisdiction to force the state to cede its legal custody of detainees to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. He said that the court might request that the state prison system transfer the prisoners to a federal facility.
On February 23, 2020, the McMichaels armed themselves with firearms and hopped into a vehicle to pursue Arbery after seeing him racing past their house outside of the maritime city of Brunswick. Bryan joined the chase with his own vehicle, hindering Arbery’s ability to flee. Additionally, he captured cell phone footage showing Travis McMichael shooting Arbery at close range as Arbery hurled blows and snatched the shotgun.
The McMichaels informed authorities that they suspected Arbery of stealing from a nearby construction site. However, officials ultimately determined that he was unarmed and had not committed any crimes. Arbery’s family has maintained for years that he was just out running.
Still, it took almost two months before any charges were brought in connection with Arbery’s murder. After the horrific footage of the shooting emerged online and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the investigation, the McMichaels and Bryan were arrested.
During the February trial for hate crimes, prosecutors bolstered their claim that Arbery’s murder was motivated by racism by presenting the jury with approximately two dozen text messages and social media posts in which Travis McMichael and Bryan used racist slurs and made disparaging remarks about Black people. A lady testified that she heard Greg McMichael say in 2015, “Those Blacks are nothing but problems,” during an intense outburst.
Attorneys for the three men maintained that McMichaels and Bryan did not follow Arbery because of his ethnicity, but rather because they had a sincere, if false, fear that he had committed crimes in their community.