A federal judge sentenced two Georgia men to life in prison on Aug. 8 for the pursuit and slaying of Ahmaud Arbery; a third man was sentenced to 35 years in prison.
A jury had determined that the three white men — Travis McMichael, 36; his father, Gregory McMichael, 66; and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — were motivated by racism when they chased Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, through their neighborhood. They were each convicted of a federal hate crime.
The men were also found guilty of attempted kidnapping, and the McMichaels were found guilty of one count each of brandishing or discharging a firearm during a violent crime.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said she had given long and serious consideration to the sentencing. She said the men had received a fair trial — “the kind of trial that Ahmaud Arbery did not receive before he was shot and killed.”
Judge Wood rejected requests by the men — who were all previously sentenced to life for their murder convictions in state court — that they be allowed to serve part of their concurrent life sentences in federal prison.
The men chased Mr. Arbery through their suburban neighborhood outside of Brunswick Ga., on a Sunday afternoon in February 2020. The five-minute pursuit ended when Travis McMichael fatally shot Mr. Arbery three times at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun.
The Arbery trials — in state and federal court trial — were among the most closely watched proceedings with civil rights overtones in the United States since the April murder conviction of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who was captured in a bystander video kneeling on the neck of another unarmed Black man, George Floyd, for roughly nine minutes. The video of that incident created an international uproar and raised serious questions about the treatment of minorities at the hands of police.
The slaying of Mr. Arbery was also captured on a videotape that was widely viewed by the public. And the trial of his accused killers also brought up issues of policing — although in this case, it involved questions about private citizens and their rights to detain people who they believe to be breaking the law.
Those rights in Georgia were detailed in a controversial Civil War-era statute that was significantly weakened by state lawmakers in direct response to the outrage over the Arbery killing. Lawmakers also passed Georgia’s first-ever hate crimes law as a result of the incident.
Who was Ahmaud Arbery?
Mr. Arbery, 25, was a former high school football standout who was living with his mother outside the small city of Brunswick. He had spent a little time in college but seemed to be in a period of drift in his 20s, testing out various careers, working on his rapping skills and living with his mother. He also suffered from a mental illness that caused him to have auditory hallucinations.
He was shot dead in a suburban neighborhood called Satilla Shores. Friends and family said he liked to stay in good shape, and he was an avid jogger who was often seen running in and around his neighborhood.
On Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020, shortly after 1 p.m., he was killed in that neighborhood after being confronted by a white man and his son.
He was killed while running near his home.
Mr. Arbery was running in Satilla Shores when a man standing in his front yard saw him go by, according to a police report. The man, Gregory McMichael, said he thought Mr. Arbery looked like a man suspected in several break-ins in the area and called to Travis McMichael, his son.
According to the police report, the men grabbed a .357 Magnum handgun and a shotgun, got into a pickup truck and chased Mr. Arbery, trying unsuccessfully to cut him off. A third man was also involved in the pursuit, according to the report and other documents.
In a recording of a 911 call, which appears to have been made moments before the chase began, a neighbor told a dispatcher that a Black man was inside a house that was under construction on the McMichaels’ block.
During the chase, the McMichaels yelled, “Stop, stop, we want to talk to you,” according to Gregory McMichael’s account in the police report. They then pulled up to Mr. Arbery, and Travis McMichael got out of the truck with the shotgun.
Gregory McMichael “stated the unidentified male began to violently attack Travis and the two men then started fighting over the shotgun at which point Travis fired a shot and then a second later there was a second shot,” the report states.
The police report and other documents do not indicate that Mr. Arbery was armed.
Gregory McMichael is a former Glynn County police officer and a former investigator with the local district attorney’s office.
More than two months passed without an arrest.
Shortly after the shooting, the prosecutor for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, Jackie Johnson, recused herself because Gregory McMichael had worked in her office.
The case was sent to George E. Barnhill, the district attorney in Waycross, Ga., who later recused himself from the case after Mr. Arbery’s mother argued that he had a conflict because his son also worked for the Brunswick district attorney.
But before he relinquished the case, Mr. Barnhill wrote a letter to the Glynn County Police Department. In the letter, he argued that there was not sufficient probable cause to arrest Mr. Arbery’s pursuers.
Mr. Barnhill noted that the McMichaels were legally carrying their firearms under Georgia’s open-carry law. He said they had been within their rights to pursue what he called “a burglary suspect” and cited a state law that says, “A private person may arrest an offender if the offense is committed in his presence or within his immediate knowledge.”
Mr. Barnhill also argued that if Mr. Arbery attacked Travis McMichael, Mr. McMichael was “allowed to use deadly force to protect himself” under Georgia law.
Anger over the killing and the lack of consequences for the McMichaels grew when a graphic video surfaced, showing the shooting on a suburban road.
The video shows a struggle before three shotgun blasts.
The cellphone video, shot by Mr. Bryan, is about a half-minute long. It shows Mr. Arbery running along a shaded two-lane residential road when he comes upon a white truck, with Travis McMichael standing beside its open driver’s side door with a shotgun. Greg McMichael, his father, is in the bed of the pickup with a handgun.
Mr. Arbery runs around the truck and disappears briefly from view. Muffled shouting can be heard before Mr. Arbery emerges, fighting with Travis McMichael outside the truck as three shotgun blasts echo.
Mr. Arbery tries to run but staggers and falls to the pavement after a few steps.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published another video that shows a man walking into a house under construction in the neighborhood and eventually running out of it.
S. Lee Merritt, a lawyer for Mr. Arbery’s family, said in a statement that the second video, which appeared to be from a home-surveillance camera, is “consistent with the evidence already known to us.”
“Ahmaud Arbery was out for a jog,” Mr. Merritt said. “He stopped by a property under construction where he engaged in no illegal activity and remained for only a brief period. Ahmaud did not take anything from the construction site.”
In an April 7, 2020, email to the office of Chris Carr, the Georgia attorney general, Mr. Barnhill, the prosecutor, said that his office had “video of Arbery burglarizing a home immediately preceding the chase and confrontation.”
But Mr. Merritt said, in his statement, that no felony had been committed by Mr. Arbery when he was on the property.
In December, the Atlanta news station WSB obtained police body camera footage from when officers first arrived on Feb. 23, including the conversations they had immediately after the incident. The conversations show that many officers on the scene knew of Gregory McMichael’s background.
In September, Ms. Johnson, who had been voted out of her job as chief prosecutor for the area, was indicted on a charge of violating her oath by showing “favor and affection” to Gregory McMichael, the former investigator in her office, and on a charge of obstruction for telling two police officers on the day of the shooting not to arrest Travis McMichael.
Mr. Arbery’s defenders say he was just getting some exercise.
Mr. Arbery’s defenders believe he was probably jogging through the neighborhood for a workout. Michael J. Moore, an Atlanta lawyer and a former federal prosecutor, reviewed Mr. Barnhill’s letter to the Glynn County police, as well as the initial police report. In an email, Mr. Moore called Mr. Barnhill’s opinion “flawed.”
In his view, Mr. Moore said, the McMichaels appeared to be the aggressors, and such aggressors were not justified in using force under Georgia’s self-defense laws. “The law does not allow a group of people to form an armed posse and chase down an unarmed person who they believe might have possibly been the perpetrator of a past crime,” Mr. Moore wrote.
The question of self-defense was a central one in the murder trial. Travis McMichael’s lawyers argued that their client had no choice but to use force when Mr. Arbery engaged with him in a fight.
Mr. Merritt has called it “an asinine defense.”
The victim who ran away from the threat, he said, before being cornered and shot to death “while desperately trying to disarm his assailant, cannot be the aggressor.”
It was Mr. Arbery, he said, who was engaging in self-defense.
“There is no other way to see this,” he said.
What were the main arguments at the trial?
In her closing statement, the lead prosecutor, Linda Dunikoski, said the defendants had launched an attack on Mr. Arbery “because he was a Black man running down the street.” In doing so, she raised the question, barely voiced during the trial, of whether race had been an issue.
“What’s Mr. Arbery doing?” Ms. Dunikoski said. “He runs away from them. And runs away from them. And runs away from them.”
The defense countered that the men were carrying out a legal citizen’s arrest in an area that had been gripped by crime concerns in the months leading up to February 2020, when they chased Mr. Arbery through their neighborhood. Laura D. Hogue, a lawyer for one of the defendants, said that Mr. Arbery had become “a recurring nighttime intruder — and that is frightening, and unsettling.”
The argument that the men were not justified in their pursuit, and are therefore guilty of other crimes, including aggravated assault and false imprisonment, was a pillar of Ms. Dunikoski’s closing statement.
Jason Sheffield, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, suggested that Mr. Arbery’s presence in the house constituted burglary — a felony — and that his client therefore was justified in trying to detain him.
In his closing argument, Kevin Gough, the lawyer for Mr. Bryan, distanced his client from the McMichaels. He said that Mr. Bryan did not know and could not have known that the other two men were armed or that Mr. Arbery would be shot.
Daniel Victor and Christina Morales contributed reporting.