A judge is expected to decide Friday, January 7, 2022, if three White men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery will have a chance for parole as they serve life sentences in prison.
Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan face life in prison after they were convicted in November of murder in the death of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man. The three men chased and cornered Arbery with their pickup trucks in suburban Satilla Shores near Brunswick, Ga. The five-minute pursuit ended with 35-year-old Travis McMichael fatally shooting Arbery, who was unarmed.
Activists and civil rights leaders praised the guilty verdict last fall as hard-won justice in the case, which saw no arrests until two months after Arbery’s death. The three men were only charged after a cellphone video of the event went viral, thrusting the killing into the national spotlight and leaving many outraged at a justice system that they said showed little care for Black lives.
Georgia law prescribes a minimum sentence of life in prison for murder, leaving the question of parole up to presiding judge Timothy Walmsley. Prosecutors have not sought the death penalty. All three men were convicted of felony murder, or committing felonies that caused Arbery’s death; Travis McMichael was also convicted of malice murder, which requires intent to kill, but faces the same punishment as his 66-year-old father and 52-year-old Bryan.
Those serving life sentences for serious violent crimes such as murder are not considered for parole until they have served 30 years.
Friday’s sentencing hearing, set to begin at 10 a.m. EST, will not mark the end of the widely watched case.
The first district attorney to handle the case faces rare criminal charges on allegations she showed bias and instructed against arrest. And the role of race in Arbery’s killing will take center stage next month when the McMichaels and Bryan go to trial on separate federal hate-crime charges.
Prosecutors implied last fall that the McMichaels and Bryan targeted Arbery in part because of his race, portraying the men as vigilantes who jumped to conclusions about a man they suspected of break-ins. But officials did not seek to prove a motive, and during the trial did not use texts and social media posts offered early in the case as evidence that the defendants were racist.
The federal indictment charges the McMichaels and Bryan with interference with Arbery’s rights and attempted kidnapping. In particular, it alleges the defendants used “force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.”
Lawyers for the defendants, who plan to appeal their conviction, argued their clients had legal grounds to apprehend Arbery on suspicion of burglary. They said the McMichaels and Bryan sought to perform a “citizen’s arrest” and that Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense.
The McMichaels “truly believe they were doing the right thing to protect their neighbors and friends,” Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, said after the verdict came back. Travis McMichael testified that Arbery struck him and grabbed his gun, leading him to fear for his life in the final moments of the cellphone footage that went viral in spring of 2020.
Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski urged the jury to be skeptical of Travis McMichael’s story, which differed from his early account to police in some key details.
“All he’s done is run away from you,” she told Travis McMichael during cross-examination. “ … And you pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at him.”
The McMichaels and Bryan were also each convicted of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony. The maximum sentences for those offenses are 20, 10 and five years, respectively. Prison terms for multiple convictions are generally served concurrently in Georgia.
Arbery’s family said their son was out jogging on Feb. 23, 2020, the day he was killed. The shooting occurred less than two miles from his home.
Defense lawyers, however, pointed to surveillance footage of Arbery entering an under-construction property in their clients’ neighborhood of Satilla Shores — incidents they said had put residents on edge. Arbery was in the unfinished home just before the shooting and also a few times in the months leading up to it.
Travis McMichael testified that he suspected Arbery of theft after hearing that things went missing from the home. But surveillance footage never showed Arbery taking anything, and he was not found with any stolen items.
Greg McMichael told police that he spotted Arbery running past his house in February 2020 and went to tell his son. Then, he said, they grabbed their guns and drove after him. Bryan joined in his own vehicle after watching the McMichaels chase Arbery past his porch.
“I figured he had done something wrong,” Bryan later told authorities.
Bryan was filming with his cellphone when the chase turned deadly. His footage — which was shared with police shortly after the shooting — captured Arbery ahead of him, running toward the McMichaels’ parked truck. At trial, Travis McMichael acknowledged that when he pointed his shotgun at Arbery, the man had not made verbal threats or shown a weapon.
Prosecutors said that Travis McMichael could not claim self-defense when he was the initial aggressor and that without Bryan and Greg McMichael’s actions, Arbery would be alive.
“Everybody is involved,” Dunikoski said in her closing arguments. “Everybody’s responsible. That’s what the law says.”