Following the November verdict, Walmsley said he’d give attorneys time to “put together whatever evidence may be shown in aggravation from the state or mitigation from the defense.”
Arbery’s family will be able to deliver statements aimed at yielding stiffer sentences, while the McMichaels’ and Bryan’s supporters can present character witnesses to press for lighter sentences. Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, intends to deliver a statement, her lawyer, S. Lee Merritt, said.
Walmsley may consider other factors, such as Travis McMichael being the one who shot Arbery.
No matter the sentences, the sprawling legal saga isn’t over: The men’s attorneys say they’ll appeal the verdicts; a federal hate crime trial is slated for next month; Arbery’s mother has filed a civil lawsuit; and the original prosecutor faces charges over her alleged handling of the case.
Decades in prison loom
The men believed Arbery had committed a crime February 23, 2020, in their Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick, they told police. The McMichaels were armed and gave chase, and Bryan later joined the pursuit, recording it from his pickup
. Bryan’s video shows Travis McMichael exit his truck and confront Arbery, who tussles with Travis over a shotgun before the younger McMichael fatally shoots him.
The McMichaels claimed they were conducting a citizen’s arrest
and acting in self-defense. Bryan said he took no part in the killing. Authorities made no immediate arrests
. The men were so confident in their defense, they had Bryan’s video released to the public in May 2020, according to criminal defense attorney Alan Tucker.
It helped spell their undoing. The 36-second video sparked outrage that soon dovetailed with outcries over the killings of George Floyd
in Minneapolis, Rayshard Brooks
in Atlanta and Breonna Taylor
in Louisville, Kentucky.
The McMichaels were arrested two days after the video went viral. Bryan was arrested two weeks after the McMichaels. The men pleaded not guilty.
At trial, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski
ripped holes in the self-defense and citizen’s arrest claims, emphasizing Travis McMichael acknowledged never seeing Arbery armed and never hearing Arbery threaten anyone. She pointed out inconsistencies between his testimony
and what he initially told investigators, spurring him to testify he was “mixed up” and traumatized when police arrived.
Dunikoski pointedly questioned how Arbery could be an aggressor when he was unarmed on foot and repeatedly tried to elude three men, two of them armed, in trucks.
A jury of nine White women, two White men and one Black man heard from 23 witnesses
over eight days. During 11 hours of deliberation, jurors asked to see two clips
of the video.
Travis McMichael was convicted on all counts: 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. His father was convicted on all counts except malice murder, and Bryan was found guilty of all charges aside from malice murder, one felony murder count and one aggravated assault count.
Appeals coming, defense lawyers say
With the death penalty off the table, each murder conviction commands a sentence of life in prison, with or without parole. Maximum sentences are 20 years for aggravated assault, 10 years for false imprisonment and five years for attempt to commit a felony.
In addition to parole eligibility, Walmsley will decide if the men serve their sentences all at once, or consecutively, meaning they must finish each sentence before beginning the next.
Following the verdicts, Travis McMichael’s attorneys said their client
is “sorry for what happened to Ahmaud Arbery,” and they plan to appeal. One of the father’s attorneys, Laura Hogue, was “floored” by the verdict
and intends to appeal, she said. Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, said he feels “appellate courts will reverse this conviction.”
Race was a steady factor, and not solely because of the defendants’ and Arbery’s skin tones. Walmsley expressed concern about the jury’s makeup
, and Gough and Hogue were accused of making insensitive remarks, with the latter accused of dehumanizing Arbery by raising his “long, dirty toenails”
during closing arguments.
During jury selection, Gough complained of a dearth of older White men without college degrees. Glynn County is 69% White and 27% Black.
Race could be a component of the appeals process, as Gough repeatedly called for mistrials
because prominent Black pastors accompanied the family in the courtroom and attended a “Prayer Wall” outside the courthouse during trial.
Dunikoski alleged Gough’s complaints about Black pastors in the courtroom led to the Prayer Wall.
“That is good lawyering right there because now he’s motioned for a mistrial based on something that he caused,” she said
. Later, Dunikoski added Gough “intentionally and strategically, I believe, did what he did in an effort to attempt to insert potentially some error into the case in case he lost the case and it went up on appeal.”
Many more court dates to come
The defendants have maintained their innocence on federal hate crime charges
, including interference with rights and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels were also charged with using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence; and Travis McMichael was charged with discharging a firearm.
Federal prosecutors say the defendants “used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race.”
“We are deeply disappointed that the Justice Department bought the false narrative that the media and state prosecutors have promulgated,” Travis McMichael’s defense team said.
The federal trial is scheduled for February 7, one month after the men’s sentencing. Because they’ve remained at Glynn County Detention Center since their arrest, there’s been no federal bond hearing. If convicted on the weapons charges or interference with rights counts, they face additional penalties
of up to life in prison with possible six-figure fines.
Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mom, has also filed a civil lawsuit targeting the men and police and prosecutorial officials. Among the officials is former District Attorney Jackie Johnson, who lost her November 2020 reelection bid
after a decade overseeing the five-county circuit.
Following Arbery’s shooting, Gregory McMichael called Johnson
, for whom he worked as an investigator until 2019, saying he needed advice. Glynn County police officers who responded to the scene also reached out to Johnson for advice. No one was arrested for two and a half months.
Johnson was indicted in September
on counts of violating her oath of office and hindering law enforcement. She’s accused of directing officers not to arrest Travis McMichael, “contrary to the laws of said State” and “showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation,” according to the indictment. She recused herself from the case the day after the killing, citing her connection to Gregory McMichael.
CNN’s attempts to reach Johnson have been unsuccessful. She denied any wrongdoing
in an October 2020 debate during her reelection campaign, saying, “It is a tragedy for the family. I’m sorry how things happened. I’m sorry that a lie got started and I could not turn it back.”
Cooper-Jones applauded Johnson’s indictment.
“She didn’t pull the trigger, but she is just as much to hold accountable as the three guys who actually did this to Ahmaud,” she said.
Cooper-Jones has asked supporters to remember her son as a vehicle for change, highlighting how his murder led to state hate crime legislation
and an overhaul of Georgia’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law
CNN’s Alta Spells, Devon M. Sayers and Ryan Young contributed to this report.
Ahmaud Arbery’s killers face sentencing today, but this sprawling legal saga is nowhere near over