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Father and son sentenced to life in prison, neighbor gets 35 years for federal hate crimes in killing of Ahmaud Arbery

Travis and Greg McMichael and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan must serve their sentences in state prison, a judge ruled.
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The father and son convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery were both given an additional sentence of life in prison Monday on federal hate crime charges, while their neighbor was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

A judge also required that Travis McMichael, 36, Greg McMichael, 66, and William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, serve their sentences in state prison, not federal prison as had been requested by their attorneys.

"A young man is dead. Ahmaud Arbery will be forever 25. And what happened, a jury found, happened because he’s Black," U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said during Greg McMichael's sentencing.

The McMichaels and Bryan, who are all white, were found guilty in February on federal hate crime charges in the killing of Arbery, a Black man who was running in their neighborhood when the defendants confronted him in February 2020. The three men were convicted of all of the federal charges against them, including hate crimes, attempted kidnapping and the use of a firearm to commit a crime.

Prosecutors sought life sentences for all three men.

However, Godbey Wood said she thought it was necessary to distinguish Bryan from the McMichaels, in part because unlike his neighbors, he did not bring a gun with him when the men chased Arbery.

"It is not lost on the court that two men brought guns to that situation that had their worst effect and you weren’t one of them," she said. She added, however, that Bryan was “still deserving of an awfully long sentence."

"By the time you serve your federal sentence, you will be close to 90 years old. But again, Mr. Arbery never got the chance to be 26," she said. "I determined that the sentence imposed is a very lengthy summary and it is one that has been earned."

Prosecutor Tara Lyons called the sentencing hearings “the end of at least one chapter in an excruciatingly painful journey for Ahmaud Arbery’s family, for his community and for an entire nation that has wept for Ahmaud.”

The men were sentenced separately, in back-to-back trials on Monday.

Amy Lee Copeland, Travis McMichael’s attorney, asked during his sentencing that the judge allow her client to serve his sentence in federal prison because, she said, he had received “hundreds of threats” and would probably be killed in state custody. A.J. Balbo, an attorney for Greg McMichael, told the judge he was medically "not fit" to serve his sentence in state prison.

Both Copeland and Balbo also said they were concerned about an investigation by the Department of Justice into inmate violence in the Georgia state prison system.

The prosecution and members of Arbery’s family asked that the McMichaels serve their sentences in state prison. 

Travis McMichael, whose sentence is life plus 10 years, declined to speak before the judge announced her decision.

His father, whose life sentence includes an additional seven years, addressed Arbery's family, telling them “the loss you’ve endured is beyond description. There’s no words for it.”

He added that he “never wanted any of this to happen. There was no malice in my heart, or my son’s heart, that day.”

The older McMichael also apologized to his son, saying he should have “never put him in that situation.”

Bryan also apologized to Arbery's family.

"I’m sorry, I am, for what happened to him on that day. I never intended any harm to him," Bryan said. "And I never would have played any role in what happened if I knew then what I know now."

Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud Arbery’s father, said ahead of the sentencing that “these three devils have broken my heart into pieces that cannot be found or repaired” and asked the court to give the stiffest sentence possible. 

“You killed him because he was a Black man and you hate Black people,” he said. 

Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, said Travis McMichael “took my baby son.”

“I feel every shot that was fired every day,” she said.

The federal case followed a state trial in November in which the men were convicted of murder and given life sentences. They have appealed their convictions in that case.

The federal hate crimes trial centered on the history of the three men and their racial bias, a motive that prosecutors in the state case largely avoided, even though Arbery’s killing gained national attention as the United States was reckoning with systemic institutional racism and bias in policing.

“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,” Attorney General Merrick Garland said. “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.”

The McMichaels and Bryan chased Arbery, 25, through their coastal Georgia neighborhood in trucks. The men, who spotted Arbery running by their homes, cornered him, and Travis McMichael fatally shot him with a shotgun. Bryan filmed the fatal encounter on his cellphone.

The men were arrested months after the shooting, following the release of Bryan's phone video and growing national attention. The case was then taken over by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Image: Ahmaud Arbery
Ahmaud Arbery.Courtesy of Family

Arbery’s family and civil rights leaders have likened his death to a modern-day lynching.

The McMichaels attempted to plead guilty to the hate crime charges before trial, but the plea agreement was rejected by the judge after Arbery’s parents protested that the men would be able serve their time in federal prison instead of state.

Federal prosecutors worked to establish that Arbery’s murder was driven by the men’s strong prejudices against Black people. Witnesses included an FBI analyst who went through the men’s social media history and neighbors and former co-workers of the McMichaels, who all testified that the father and son made troubling racist jokes, rants and statements and were open about their negative feelings toward Black people.

The defense said the messages and social media posts were taken out of context and that even though they had said troubling things, they insisted the men were not driven by their racial bias to pursue and kill Arbery.

This month, Greg McMichael’s attorney asked the judge not to impose a life sentence, although he said his client still deserves “a substantial period of incarceration,” The Associated Press reported. McMichael's defense team also asked the judge for a transfer to federal prison, where he could avoid serving time for the murder in Georgia’s state prison system.