Guilty verdict in federal hate crime trial in Ahmaud Arbery's death

Phil McCausland
Travis McMichael, left, speaks with his attorney Jason B. Sheffield , center, during his sentencing, along with his father Greg McMichael and neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan in the Glynn County Courthouse, on January 7, 2022 in Brunswick, Georgia. neighborhood.
Stephen B. Morton | Pool | Getty Images

A federal jury in Georgia on Tuesday found the three men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery guilty of hate crime and other charges.

After a day of deliberation, U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said Tuesday morning that the jury — made up of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person — had come to a conclusion and would read its verdict shortly.

The jury found father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan guilty of all the federal charges they individually faced, including hate crimes, attempted kidnapping and the use of a firearm to commit a crime. The conviction came one day before the second anniversary of Arbery's murder.

The McMichaels and Bryan chased Arbery, 25, through their coastal Georgia neighborhood in trucks. The three men spotted Arbery running by their homes in February 2020, and cornered him and Travis McMichael fatally shot him with a shotgun.

The McMichaels and Bryan were free for several weeks after the shooting. They were arrested only after the video that Bryan recorded was released and the case was taken over by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

They were convicted of murder and given life sentences in the state trial. The federal hate crime 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 at the same time that the U.S. reckoned with issues including racism and bias in policing.

"Two years ago today, none of us knew of Ahmaud Arbery. But two years ago tomorrow, his story shook the conscience of our nation and world," said NAACP president Derrick Johnson. "Ahmaud Arbery was lynched in broad daylight, and today's verdict brings us one step closer to justice."

The hate crime verdict is an emotional victory for Arbery's family, who spoke out against a proposed plea deal for the men.

The McMichaels attempted to plead guilty to the hate crime charges prior to the trial, but the plea agreement was rejected by the judge after Arbery's parents, Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery, protested that the men would be able serve their time in a federal prison instead of a state one, calling the deal "disrespectful."

After the trial, Cooper-Jones said she was thankful for the prosecution, but she also noted that the Department of Justice "did not hear my cry" as they continued to push forward with a plea deal that she did not support.

"What we got today, we wouldn't have gotten today if it wasn't for the fight that the family put up," she said. "What the DOJ did today, they was made to do today."

Federal prosecutors spent a week working to establish that Arbery's murder was driven by the three men's racial bias and their animus toward Black people.

Witnesses called included an FBI analyst who had combed through the three men's social media and messaging history, where she found messages, videos and memes that appeared to show that the three men held strong prejudices against Black people.

The defense said the messages and social media posts were taken out of context.

Friday was the final day of testimony and perhaps the most jarring for the jury, as prosecutors called 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.

Throughout the case, the defense maintained that the three men may not be likable, may have said troubling things and did not dispute the essential facts of the case. But they insisted that they were not driven by prejudice to chase and kill Arbery.

On Monday, the jury heard closing arguments in which prosecutor Christopher Perras said that the three men were driven by their "pent-up racial anger" and that Travis McMichael "was just looking for a reason" to harm a Black person.

The prosecution also focused on the McMichaels' operating as vigilantes and their view that they were above the law. At one point in the closing statement, Perras noted that Greg McMichael did not call police when Arbery ran by; he called his son and picked up his gun.

"There's a big difference between being vigilant and being a vigilante," Perras said.