Three white men convicted of murder for chasing and killing Ahmaud Arbery were sentenced to life in prison on Friday.
The judge denied any chance of parole for the father and son who armed themselves and initiated the deadly pursuit of the 25-year-old Black man.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley said Arbery left his home for a jog and ended up running for his life for five minutes as the men chased him until they finally cornered him. The judge paused for a minute of silence to help drive home a sense of what that time must have felt like for Arbery, whose killing became part of a larger national reckoning on racial injustice.
“When I thought about this, I thought from a lot of different angles. I kept coming back to the terror that must have been in the mind of the young man running through Satilla Shores,” he said, mentioning the neighbourhood where Arbery was killed.
Greg and Travis McMichael grabbed guns and jumped in a pickup truck to chase Arbery after spotting him running in their neighbourhood outside the port city of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Their neighbour, William “Roddie” Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael firing close-range shotgun blasts into Arbery.
“Ahmaud Arbery was then hunted down and shot, and he was killed because individuals here in this courtroom took the law into their own hands,” the judge said. Walmsley ordered the McMichaels to serve life without parole and granted Bryan a chance to earn parole after serving at least 30 years in prison.
A few dozen supporters cheered Arbery’s family as they exited onto the courthouse steps Friday afternoon.
“Today your son has made history, because we have people who are being held accountable for lynching a Black man in America!” said Benjamin Crump, a civil attorney representing the family.
Murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison under Georgia law unless prosecutors seek the death penalty, which they opted against in this case. During the sentencing hearing, Arbery's family had asked the judge to show no lenience in deciding whether to grant an eventual chance at parole.
Arbery's sister recalled his humour, 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 for the men who pursued him.
“These are the qualities that made these men assume that Ahmaud was a dangerous criminal and chase him 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.
Arbery's mother said she suffered a personal, intense loss made worse by a trial where the defence was that her son had 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.”
The sentences matched the recommendation of prosecutor Linda Dunikoski, who said all deserved the mandatory life sentence for showing “no empathy for the trapped and terrified Ahmaud Arbery.”
Contending the McMichaels still believed they didn’t do anything wrong, Dunikoski disclosed Friday that Greg McMichael gave Bryan's cellphone video of the shooting to an attorney, who leaked it.
“He believed it was going to exonerate him,” the prosecutor said.
The McMichaels' defence attorneys argued that their clients deserved the possibility of parole because the killing was an unplanned, unintentional act. Bryan's lawyer said he showed remorse and cooperated with police, turning over the cellphone video of the shooting to help them get to the truth.
“Mr Bryan isn’t the one who brought a gun,” Kevin Gough said. “He was unarmed. And I think that reflects his intentions.”
Bryan is 52, raising the chances that he will spend the remainder of his life in prison even with the chance of parole after serving 30 years.
The guilty verdicts against the men handed down the day before Thanksgiving prompted a victory celebration outside the Glynn County courthouse. In addition to murder, all three men were also convicted of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Travis and Greg McMichael were each sentenced to an additional 20 years for aggravated assault.
Defence 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 US District Court on federal hate crime charges. A judge has set jury selection to begin on Febuary 7. Prosecutors will argue that the three men violated Arbery's civil rights and targeted him because he was Black.