A judge sentenced father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael to life in prison on Monday for a federal hate crime in the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood sentenced Travis McMichael, a 36-year-old former U.S. Coast Guard mechanic, and Gregory McMichael, a 66-year-old former Glynn County police officer who later worked for the local prosecutor’s office, in the coastal city of Brunswick.
Both men are already serving life sentences with no possibility of parole after being convicted of Arbery’s murder in a state trial last November. They were the first two of the three men convicted in February in a subsequent federal trial to be sentenced in consecutive hearings on Monday.
In handing down the younger McMichael’s sentence, Wood said the widely seen cellphone video of him shooting Arbery at close range with a shotgun was seared into her memory. The McMichaels followed and stopped Arbery, who was jogging in a neighborhood because they suspected he may have been linked to recent crimes in the area. When Arbery lunged for the younger McMichael’s gun, Travis McMichael shot Abery in the torso.
“You acted because of the color of Mr. Arbery’s skin,” the judge told McMichael.
The two McMichaels and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, were convicted of violating Arbery’s civil rights by attacking him because of his race and of attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels also were convicted of a federal firearms charge. Bryan, who worked as a mechanic, is scheduled to be sentenced later on Monday.
Gregory McMichael, testifying before he was sentenced, told Arbery’s family he prayed that “God’s peace” would too come to them.
“The loss that you’ve endured is beyond description,” he said as some of Arbery’s relatives wiped away tears in a crowded courtroom that included civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. “I’m sure that my words mean very little to you, but I want to assure you I never wanted any of this to happen. There was no malice in my heart or my son’s heart that day.”
He apologized to his son, who had earlier declined his own chance to testify, and to his wife, who began sobbing, but did not explicitly apologize to Arbery’s family.
Marcus Arbery, the slain man’s father, told the court during the first hearing: “These three devils have broken my heart into pieces that cannot be found or repaired.”
“I struggled to come to the realization that a father could actually accompany his son to take a life,” Wanda Cooper Jones, Arbery’s mother, told the second hearing in urging a life sentence for Gregory McMichael.
Arbery was running through the mostly white Satilla Shores neighborhood, near Brunswick, on a February 2020 afternoon. Security footage later showed a man who appeared to be Arbery trespassing at a residential construction site. The McMichaels decided to grab their guns, jump in a pickup truck and give chase. Their neighbor Bryan joined the chase in his own pickup truck and pulled out his cellphone to record the chase and attempted “citizen’s arrest”.
A few moments later, Travis McMichael fired a shotgun at Arbery at close range, killing him.
The cellphone video emerged months later, prompting anti-racism protests in many U.S. cities because the McMichaels and Bryan had not been arrested after a local prosecutor concluded the killing was justified.
The McMichaels have said they believed that Arbery appeared suspicious, speaking of a series of neighborhood break-ins. No evidence ever emerged connecting Arbery to any Satilla Shore thefts.
The three men were convicted last November in state court of murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal intent to commit a felony, with a jury rejecting self-defense claims. They have appealed.
Both McMichaels had asked through lawyers to be transferred out of the state prison system into a federal prison he perceived to be safer. Wood said the rules required they return to the state prison system where they already are serving life sentences.
A lawyer for the younger McMichael, Amy Lee Copeland, said he has received death threats.
“This case involves at least in part concerns of vigilante justice,” she told the court. “I realize the rich irony, judge, in expressing my concern that my client will face vigilante justice himself.”
Copyright 2022 Thomson/Reuters