3 white men are found guilty of murder in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery

Nov 24, 2021
Originally published on November 24, 2021 1:23 pm

Updated November 24, 2021 at 3:23 PM ET

The three white men who chased down and killed Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was jogging through their Georgia neighborhood last year, were all found guilty of murder charges.

The high-profile shooting — and the 10 weeks it took for law enforcement to make the first arrests — galvanized racial injustice protests in the summer of 2020.

"It's been a long fight, it's been a hard fight, but God is good," Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said Wednesday outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. "I never thought this day would come," she added, saying her son will now "rest in peace."

After the judge read the first guilty verdict, a whoop rang out in the courtroom. "Long time coming," the person, later identified as Arbery's father, Marcus, exclaimed as the judge expelled him from the courtroom.

Father and son Greg McMichael, 65, and Travis McMichael, 35, and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan, 52, all faced the same nine criminal counts in Georgia state court: one count 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. They pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Jurors found all three men guilty of nearly all the counts against them. Travis McMichael was found guilty of all nine counts. Greg McMichael was found not guilty of one count of malice murder, and Bryan was found not guilty of one count of malice murder, one count of felony murder and one count of aggravated assault.

As the verdicts were read, Travis McMichael appeared largely emotionless and eventually let out a sigh. Greg McMichael dropped his head at the first guilty verdict against him. Bryan wore a pained frown as his verdicts were read aloud by Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley.

Prosecutors have said that they intend to seek life in prison without parole for the three defendants. The date of their sentencing has not yet been scheduled.

"When you present the truth to people and they can see it, they will do the right thing," lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said. "And that's what this jury did today in getting justice for Ahmaud Arbery."

An attorney for Greg McMichael, Laura Hogue, said after the verdict that she is "floored, floored with a capital 'F,'" and "very disappointed."

Arbery, an avid runner, was jogging through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Glynn County on Feb. 23, 2020, when the McMichaels spotted him and then pursued him in a Ford F-150 pickup. Bryan later joined the chase, which the prosecutor said lasted five minutes, in his Chevy Silverado truck. Travis McMichael approached Arbery with a shotgun and, after a brief struggle, fatally shot him.

Arbery's death is viewed by many as racially motivated and the trial as another test case for racial justice. His family has described it as a "modern-day lynching," and activists point to it as an example of the suspicion and violence that Black people face in the U.S. while doing everyday things.

There was no evidence presented of racial animus during this state trial, but that will be the subject of a federal hate crimes trial next year for all three men.

Since opening statements began on Nov. 5, the defense teams for McMichaels and Bryan argued that their clients suspected Arbery was involved in reports of several burglaries in the largely white neighborhood. While surveillance video shows Arbery entering a home under construction on multiple occasions, no evidence was presented in court that he took anything or that he was responsible for any of the neighborhood break-ins or thefts.

Lawyers for the defendants had said they intended to make a citizen's arrest and question Arbery. And Travis McMichael, the man who ultimately fired three shots, two of which a medical examiner testified hit Arbery, said he feared for his life as the two men scuffled.

The prosecution pushed back against the idea that Arbery was gunned down in self-defense. "They shot and killed him," Dunikoski said during closing arguments on Monday. "Not because he was a threat to them, but because he wouldn't stop and talk to them."

The jury began deliberations just before noon on Tuesday. In a county where Black people make up nearly 27% of the population, 11 of the jurors are white and one is Black.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, standing alongside Arbery's parents and lawyers, addressed the composition of the jury in remarks after Wednesday's verdict.

"Let the word go forth all over the world that a jury of 11 whites and one Black in the Deep South stood up in the courtroom and said Black lives do matter," Sharpton said. "We've got a lot more battles to fight, but this was an important battle today."

A person protesting racial injustice holds a photo of Ahmaud Arbery during a May 2020 march in Washington, D.C.
Michael S. Williamson / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Video evidence drew a spotlight to the case

As Bryan was helping to chase down Arbery, he recorded video of the final moments in the confrontation.

This graphic video started circulating online in early May 2020 after nearly three months had gone by without any arrests.

Arbery's mother, Cooper-Jones, says local law enforcement officials failed to immediately and meaningfully investigate the killing, and she has accused the Brunswick County District Attorney's Office of being involved in a cover-up. She noted that Greg McMichael is a former police officer who also worked with the DA's office.

Two Brunswick County prosecutors who had been assigned to the case eventually recused themselves, so Dunikoski of Cobb County was assigned as lead prosecutor in the trial. Judge Walmsley was given the case after all five judges in the Brunswick Judicial Circuit recused themselves.

The case gained national attention over the span of a few months when there were multiple high-profile police killings of Black people, including George Floyd's murder by a Minneapolis police officer and the fatal shooting of Breonna Taylor in her home by Louisville, Ky., police. These cases led to calls for justice and police reform.

After the verdict, President Biden said it is a reminder that "we must recommit ourselves to build a future of unity and shared strength, where no one fears violence because of the color of their skin."

Defense lawyers say their clients were trying to protect their community

Throughout the roughly two-week trial, lawyers for all three defendants consistently portrayed them as individuals trying to protect their neighborhood.

"This case is about duty and responsibility," defense attorney Robert Rubin, who represents Travis McMichael, said during opening statements. "It's about Travis McMichael's duty and responsibility to himself, to his family and to his neighborhood."

Greg McMichael told police that there had been several recent break-ins in the area before the deadly encounter.

While in his front yard the day of the shooting, he said he saw the person he believed to be involved in those break-ins "hauling a**" down the residential street, according to a Feb. 23 Glynn County Police Department incident report.

Defense lawyers said the McMichaels jumped in the truck and gave chase because they wanted to execute a citizen's arrest. The older McMichael was armed with a .357 Magnum and Travis had a shotgun. Arbery was unarmed.

Greg McMichael's defense team has stressed that they did not intend to harm Arbery, but rather wanted to detain him.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley listens to defense attorney Jason B. Sheffield as he presents a closing argument to the jury during the trial of Travis McMichael; his father, Gregory McMichael; and William "Roddie" Bryan at the Glynn County Courthouse on Monday in Brunswick, Ga.
Stephen B. Morton / AP

During the pursuit, the McMichaels chased Arbery past Bryan's home. Bryan was out on his front porch and, according to the prosecutor, called out "Y'all got him?" before he joined the attempt to corner Arbery.

Jason Sheffield, another defense attorney for Travis McMichael, said during the trial that McMichael had every right to perform a citizen's arrest because he saw Arbery as a "recurring intruder."

Sheffield said McMichael didn't wake up that day intending to kill Arbery but did so only in self-defense when he thought he was in danger.

McMichael at one point took the stand in his own defense and declared: "It was obvious that he was attacking me, that if he would've got the shotgun from me, then it was a life or death situation. And I'm gonna have to stop him from doing this, so I shot."

Bryan's lawyer, Kevin Gough, suggested that his client's presence did not change the course of events: "Roddie Bryan's presence is absolutely superfluous and irrelevant to the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery." He also said his client wasn't aware the McMichaels were armed.

The prosecution says the defendants had no legal cause to go after Arbery

Lead prosecutor Dunikoski portrayed the three men as "strangers with intent to kill" who made "driveway decisions" to go after Arbery.

She pushed back on the idea that they had any cause to execute a legal citizen's arrest, stressing that the men had no actual knowledge of any crime the young man committed on the day they saw him run by — and never actually said to him that they were trying to make an arrest.

"Nobody said 'I saw him commit a crime today, no one said 'I'm making a citizen's arrest,' no one was trying to arrest him for the crime of anything," she said. "No one said any of these things on Feb. 23, 2020."

"Greg McMichael assumed the worst," the prosecutor said, adding that he roused his son off the sofa so they could go after Arbery together. She pointed out that McMichael later told police he did not know for certain whether Arbery actually broke into a home that day.

"You can't make a citizen's arrest because someone's running down the street," she said.

And like the McMichaels, the prosecutor said, Bryan also required no hard evidence of any wrongdoing by Arbery before he gave chase.

"That is what being a party to the crime is — you go to help some people who are committing some crimes, trying to stop this guy and detain him and confine him," Dunikoski said.

The prosecutor stated that Arbery would still be alive had Bryan not used his truck to cut off Arbery and block him from fleeing. And she noted that Greg McMichael informed police that he told Arbery he would "blow your f***ing head off" if he didn't stop running.

Arbery "was trying to get away from these strangers who were yelling at him, threatening to kill him," Dunikoski said. "And then they killed him."

NPR's Emma Bowman contributed to this report.

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