Guilty verdicts met with relief, joy in Georgia and beyond
By Eliott C. McLaughlin, Devon M. Sayers, Alta Spells and Travis Caldwell | CNN
A jury Wednesday found three White men charged in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, guilty on multiple murder counts, as well as other charges.
The verdict, delivered by nine White men, two White women and one Black man, came after more than 11 hours of deliberation spanning two days. It followed eight days of testimony, involving 23 witnesses.
Arbery’s parents appeared alongside civil rights stalwarts outside the courthouse following the verdict. They praised the prosecution and supporters who joined the family in their fight for justice for their son, whose killing drew national outrage and helped cast a spotlight on other racially driven crimes around the country.
The defendants each faced the same nine counts, and verdicts were as follows:
• Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Arbery, is guilty on all charges: malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony;
• His father, Gregory McMichael, who rode armed in the bed of a pickup as his son pursued Arbery, is not guilty of malice murder but guilty on the other eight charges.
• And William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., a neighbor who joined the pursuit and filmed Arbery’s final moments, is guilty of three counts of felony murder, one count of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony. Bryan was cleared on the charge of malice murder, felony murder involving aggravated assault with a firearm and the count of aggravated assault with a firearm.
Introduced by the Rev. Al Sharpton and civil rights attorneys S. Lee Merritt and Ben Crump, Arbery’s parents, Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery, heartily thanked the crowd. Ahmaud Arbery can now rest in peace, Cooper-Jones said.
“I just want to say thank you guys,” she said. “It’s been a long fight. It’s been a hard fight, but God is good. … I never thought this day would come, but God is good, and I just want to tell everybody thank you, thank you for those who marched, those who prayed.”
Added Marcus Arbery, “I want to give all glory to God because that’s who made all this possible. … It’s not one side did this. God put us all together to make this happen.”
Sharpton said a prayer with the crowd and proclaimed with his trademark zeal, “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.’
“Let it be clear that almost 10 years after Trayvon (Martin), God used Wanda and Marcus’ son to prove that if we kept marching and kept fighting, we would make you hear us. We’ve got a lot more battles to fight, but this was an important battle today.”
Defense attorneys indicate they will appeal
The sentencing date for the McMichaels and Bryan is unclear. Prosecutors have indicated they will seek sentences of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Following the verdicts, Laura Hogue, an attorney for Gregory McMichael, told her client’s weeping wife that she was “floored with a capital F” and plans to appeal the case after sentencing.
Robert Rubin, who represented Travis McMichael, said he, too, planned to appeal. He described his client as stoic and said he was holding in his reaction following the verdict. Co-counsel Jason Sheffield insisted the McMichaels thought their actions that day were “the right thing to do” and said he is disappointed and saddened by the outcome.
“We also recognize that this is a day of celebration for the Arbery family,” Sheffield said. “We cannot tear our eyes away from the way that they feel about this, and we understand that they feel that they have gotten justice today. We respect that. We honor that because we honor this jury trial system.”
The McMichaels and Bryan have been indicted on federal hate crime charges and are scheduled to go on trial in February on counts of interference of rights and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels each face an additional charge of using, carrying, brandishing and discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence. The men have pleaded not guilty.
Arbery’s mother has filed civil claims against the McMichaels, Bryan and police and prosecutorial officials.
The McMichaels and Bryan were arrested last year several weeks after the shooting of Arbery in the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, on February 23, 2020.
The men said they believed Arbery had committed a crime. Evidence introduced in the trial showed the men chased Arbery through the streets as he repeatedly tried to elude them. The McMichaels, who were armed, were in one vehicle, while Bryan, who joined while the chase was underway, followed in his own truck, assisting in and recording the chase. Arbery was unarmed and on foot.
Video of the killing showed Travis McMichael exit his truck and confront Arbery before fatally shooting him as the two tussled. McMichael’s father watched from the bed of the truck.
The men pleaded not guilty, with the McMichaels claiming they were conducting a citizen’s arrest and acting in self-defense, and Bryan saying he took no part in the killing.
Arbery was on a jog — a common pastime, according to those who knew him — when the McMichaels grabbed their guns and pursued him. Gregory McMichael, a former police officer and ex-investigator in the county prosecutor’s office, told authorities Arbery and his son had struggled over his son’s shotgun and Travis shot Arbery after he was attacked, according to a police report.
On the stand, Travis McMichael echoed his dad’s claim that he acted in self-defense after Arbery grabbed his shotgun. Cross-examined by a prosecutor, Travis McMichael conceded that he’d told investigators he didn’t know whether Arbery grabbed the weapon and that neither he nor his dad had mentioned a citizen’s arrest to police. His father and Bryan declined to testify.
Travis McMichael said he was “scattered,” traumatized and “mixed up” in the hours after the shooting, offering an explanation for his inconsistencies.
Two prosecutors initially instructed Glynn County police not to make arrests in the case, but about two months after the shooting, Bryan’s video of the killing was made public, sparking a nationwide outcry.
Part of a national outcry
The McMichaels were arrested May 7, 2020, and Bryan was taken into custody two weeks later. The case soon dovetailed with the killings of three Black people — Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta — redoubling angst over racial injustice and civil unrest nationwide.
The father and son believed Arbery was responsible for a string of recent burglaries in the neighborhood, the elder McMichael told police, but Glynn County police said there had been only one burglary reported in the roughly two months before the shooting. In that incident, a gun had been stolen from an unlocked vehicle at the McMichaels’ home.
Gregory McMichael also suspected Arbery had been inside a home under construction, he said, but the home’s owner told CNN he had surveillance cameras and did not see Arbery commit any crime. He did not ask the McMichaels to take any action on his behalf, he testified in a deposition.
Travis McMichael also acknowledged he never saw Arbery armed and never heard Arbery threaten him. Rather, Travis McMichael testified, Arbery refused to respond to him and showed no interest in conversing.
A state investigator testified during a preliminary hearing last year that Bryan and Travis McMichael used racial slurs on social media and messaging services, and that Bryan told police he heard Travis McMichael use a racial epithet after killing Arbery. Evidence of the slurs was never presented to the jury.
“I believe Mr. Arbery was being pursued, and he ran till he couldn’t run anymore, and it was turn his back to a man with a shotgun or fight with his bare hands against the man with the shotgun. He chose to fight,” Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Richard Dial said at a June 2020 probable cause hearing.
During closing arguments, Hogue made remarks that legal experts felt stoked the racial tensions already evident in the case. She referred to Arbery as a “recurring nighttime intruder” and implied he had nefarious intent when he arrived “in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”
Makeup of jury was source of contention
Only having one Black juror has been a key complaint from prosecutors and Arbery’s family, as Glynn County’s population is about 69% White and 27% Black.
The 12-member trial jury and three alternates were selected after a protracted jury selection process that lasted two and a half weeks and included summoning 1,000 prospective jurors from the South Georgia coastal community. Of those summoned, less than half showed up.
The makeup of the jury was challenged by the state at the conclusion of the jury selection process. Dunikoski claimed defense attorneys disproportionately struck qualified Black jurors and based some of their strikes on race.
Judge Timothy Walmsley said, “This court has found that there appears to be intentional discrimination,” but ruled that the case could go forward with the selected jurors because the defense was able to provide valid reasons, beyond race, for why the other Black jurors were dismissed.
Defense attorneys also took issue with there being fewer older White men without college degrees in the juror pool, saying the demographic was underrepresented.