Convicted killers charged with federal hate crime

The Mother of Amaud Arbery addresses the crowd and pastors during the trial in November 2021. Photo by Denisha DeLane on

On Feb. 23, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed while jogging through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick. The world has since closely followed the case.  Arbery’s death was one of the multiple cases that helped spark the most prominent civil rights movement in recent history during the summer of 2020.  The three men responsible were convicted of federal hate crime charges this week, on the second anniversary of Arbery’s murder. Much has happened in the two years since his death. Ahmaud Arbery was running on a route near his home on a Sunday afternoon when two men from the neighborhood, Travis and Gregory McMichael, followed him in their pickup truck and confronted him with two firearms.  A third man, William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., took pursuit behind Arbery and filmed the incident. A physical altercation ensued between Arbery and Travis over Travis’s weapon, ending in three gunshots from Travis that resulted in Arbery’s death.   Seventy-three days later, two days after the video of the killing was made public, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations arrested both McMichaels on charges of murder and aggravated assault.  Two weeks later, authorities arrested Bryan on charges of felony murder and a criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. In September of 2021, authorities indicted former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson for “showing favor and affection” to Gregory, her former subordinate, for violations of her oath, obstructing the case during the investigation and obstructing law enforcement by directing two officers not to arrest Travis for shooting Arbery. During the trial, which didn’t get underway until November 2021, the aggressors argued they were enforcing the Citizen’s Arrest Law, in which an individual could detain someone they had seen committing a serious crime if the suspect was trying to escape.  The jury ultimately decided that the three men did not meet the requirements to justify their actions. “There are requirements for a citizen’s arrest to be valid and legal,” says local attorney Jason Duncan. “You can’t just carte blanche decide to citizen’s arrest anyone you want.” The state law, which dates back to the American Civil War era with a long history of being used to justify lynching, was repealed in the wake of the incident.  Gregory claimed he followed Arbery because he believed he matched the description of a man suspected in several recent break-ins in the area.  Public records show there was only one recorded theft in the area, the month before when someone stole a handgun from Travis’s unlocked vehicle. “There’s a big difference between being vigilant and being a vigilante,” Justice Department attorney Christopher Perras said in his closing argument. Travis testified that he fired in self-defense, but prosecutors said self-defense was not possible in the case because the men were acting as aggressors.  In November of 2021, the jury returned guilty verdicts to all three men for the felony murder of Arbery.  Gregory McMichael was found guilty of four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and a criminal attempt to commit a felony. Authorities acquitted him on a malice-murder charge.  Travis McMichael was found guilty of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony.  William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. was found guilty of three counts of felony murder, one count of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony.  He was acquitted of malice murder, one count of felony murder and aggravated assault. Travis tried to take a plea deal that averted his hate crime trial in late January.  Still, Arbery’s family argued a federal prison sentence, the condition of the agreement, would not be a tough enough punishment for the man who killed their son.  Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she believed the men should spend the rest of their lives in a Georgia State Prison. “Please listen to me,” Cooper-Jones told the judge. “Granting these men their preferred choice of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face.” District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the deal, saying its terms would lock her into a specific sentence. She wanted to give the Arbery family a chance to voice their thoughts on whatever punishment was ultimately given. Travis said he was willing to plead guilty to killing Arbery because of his race, but the court still decided to go through with the hate crime trial, which took place in February of 2022. . Defense attorneys argued the premise of the trial was wrong, again stating the three men pursued Arbery because they believed him to be a burglary suspect, not because he was black- but there was a lot of damning evidence.  Several witnesses spoke of experiences in which  they heard one of the defendants using racist language.  One witness, Carole Sears, recalled Gregory saying, “All those Blacks are nothing but trouble, and I wish they’d all die,” in response to discovering civil rights leader Julian Bonds  had died. In their opening statements this week, defense lawyers criticized the racist language their clients used. Still, they also insisted such language is not sufficient evidence the men killed Arbery because he was black. All three men were convicted on federal hate crime charges for targeting Arbery due to his race. They were also found guilty of interference with rights, attempted kidnapping and both McMichaels were charged with using and carrying firearms. Judge Wood gave the defendants and their attorneys 14 days to file post-trial motions before  the U.S. probation office conducted  a pre-sentencing interview and scheduled the sentencing hearing.  As a result of this case, on Jun. 26, 2020, Georgia enacted a new hate crime law.