A federal jury has found three White men guilty of committing a hate crime and other violations when they chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery two years ago, determining they were motivated by racial animus because he was Black.
The trial focused on a history of racist and offensive statements from Gregory McMichael, 66, Travis McMichael, 36, and William “Roddie” Bryan, 52. Tuesday’s conviction, after just a couple of hours of jury deliberation, represents a victory for the U.S. Department of Justice, which has vowed to more aggressively prosecute hate crimes, and for civil rights groups that have demanded greater accountability in racially motivated attacks against Blacks and other minorities.
The killings of Arbery, George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, all of whom were Black, prompted mass demonstrations across the country two years ago. The charges against the McMichaels and Bryan marked the first time prosecutors charged anyone with a hate crime in connection with one of those slayings.
The jury began deliberating Monday afternoon, and adjourned after about two hours. Soon after reconvening Tuesday morning, jurors sent word they had a verdict. The three men were convicted of both hate crimes and kidnapping, while the McMichaels were also found guilty of a weapons violation, which Bryan had not been charged with.
All three men already have been convicted of state murder charges and sentenced to life in prison, with Bryan eligible for parole after 30 years. U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood will determine their federal sentences.
In a case that hinged on proving the defendants’ state of mind, prosecutors argued that the men’s prejudice helped explain why they erroneously viewed Arbery, 25, as a potential criminal when they cut him off in pickup trucks and threatened him with guns in a Georgia neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020.
The government presented evidence from 20 witnesses, many of whom testified about racially derogatory text messages, social media posts and remarks from the three men in which they disparaged Black people.
“All three defendants told you loud and clear, in their own words, how they feel about African Americans,” prosecutor Tara Lyons told the jury, made up of eight White people, three Black people and one Hispanic person. “Yes, race, racism, racial discrimination — those can all be very difficult topics to discuss. But the facts of this case are not difficult.”
Defense lawyers maintained that the men were trying to stop and question Arbery not because of his race, but because the McMichaels suspected him of trespassing at a neighbor’s property in their coastal Georgia subdivision.
Neighbors, including the McMichaels, had seen surveillance videos of a man, later identified as Arbery, exploring the property several times in the weeks leading up to the shooting. Gregory McMichael recognized Arbery as the man in the video as he jogged past McMichael’s house, defense lawyers said, prompting the former police officer and his son to chase Arbery in a pickup truck.
Bryan, a neighbor, joined the chase in his own truck after witnessing the commotion.
“The government hasn’t proved beyond a reasonable doubt that race was a motivating factor,” Amy Lee Copeland, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, said during her closing argument.
The verdict was the culmination of a series of twists in the Arbery case, which began with a local prosecutor arguing against any charges in Arbery’s death. The Justice Department’s decision to pursue federal charges, initially viewed as a relief and backstop by advocates, grew more complicated after the Arbery family objected to the Justice Department’s proposed plea deal with the McMichaels.
In the end, the jury’s decision to convict the men of a hate crime sends what advocates called a crucial message: That acts targeting racial minorities can cause fear and harm to a far broader group than the immediately victim and will not be tolerated at a time of rising White nationalism.
Separate trials related to Floyd’s and Taylor’s deaths have not focused directly on racial animus.
In Minneapolis, a federal jury began deliberations this week against three former police officers accused of violating the civil rights of Floyd, two months after former police officer Derek Chauvin — convicted in state court of murdering Floyd — pleaded guilty to federal civil rights charges. But federal prosecutors did not explicitly allege a racial motivation in those cases. Minnesota officials said there was no evidence under state law to pursue a hate-crime charge in the killing of Floyd, who, like Arbery, was an unarmed Black man.
In Louisville, the state trial begins Tuesday against former officer Brett Hankison, charged with wanton endangerment in the botched apartment raid that led to the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old Black woman, in March 2020. He is the only person charged in the incident, and the accusations are not directly related to Taylor’s death.
Arbery was killed on a Sunday afternoon while jogging through the streets of Satilla Shores, a coastal subdivision, after a five-minute chase in which the McMichaels and Bryan worked to cut off his path in their trucks, prosecutors said. The McMichaels were armed; Bryan was not.
The investigation into his killing was marred by dysfunction from the start. Then-Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson recused herself because Gregory McMichael had worked as an investigator in her office. She has since been accused of showing favoritism toward Travis McMichael, and she was charged in September with violating her oath of office.
Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill took over the case, and he indicated that he viewed Arbery as a “criminal suspect” whose shooting was “perfectly legal” under Georgia law. Barnhill, though, stepped aside after it was revealed that his son had worked with the elder McMichael in Johnson’s office.
Not until a video of Arbery’s killing, which Bryan recorded on his cellphone, was made public by a local radio station in May 2020 did local prosecutors file murder charges against the three men.
During the federal trial, defense lawyers said Gregory McMichael leaked the video, and argued that him doing so demonstrated that he did not believe he and the other two men had acted with malice. But federal prosecutors said law enforcement officials already had a copy of the video and that McMichael was trying to influence the public narrative of the confrontation with Arbery.
The McMichaels and Bryan were convicted on state murder charges in November 2021 after a trial in which prosecutors did not make race a central focus of their case.
Justice Department officials, who had announced a grand jury indictment last April, elected to move forward with the hate crimes prosecution. But the case took another turn last month when the Arbery family publicly opposed a federal plea deal with the McMichaels over concerns that the agreement included an unusual provision that would have allowed the men to serve 30 years in federal prison.
Arbery’s parents objected, saying that would be favorable to the defendants. Wood, the federal judge, rejected the plea deal, setting the stage for the trial.
Under sentencing guidelines, in the absence of a plea deal, the men are expected to serve their sentences in state prison, experts have said.