BRUNSWICK, Ga. (Reuters)
A judge sentenced white father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael to life in prison today (August 8) for a federal hate crime in the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man shot after jogging in a suburban Georgia neighbourhood in a case that involved issues of racist violence and vigilantism in America.
United States District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood sentenced Travis McMichael, a 36-year-old former US Coast Guard mechanic, and Gregory McMichael, a 66-year-old former Glynn County police officer who later worked for the local prosecutor’s office, in the coastal city of Brunswick.
Both men already are serving life sentences with no possibility of parole after being convicted of Arbery’s murder in a state trial last November. They were the first two of the three white men convicted in February in a subsequent federal trial to be sentenced in consecutive hearings on Monday.
IMAGE SEARED INTO MEMORY
In handing down the younger McMichael’s sentence, Wood said the widely seen cellphone video of him shooting Arbery at close range with a shotgun was seared into her memory.
“You acted because of the colour of Mr Arbery’s skin,” the judge told McMichael, who looked ashen as the sentence was pronounced.
The two McMichaels and their neighbour William ‘Roddie’ Bryan, 52, were convicted of violating Arbery’s civil rights by attacking him because of his race and of attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels also were convicted of a federal firearms charge. Bryan, who worked as a mechanic, is scheduled to be sentenced later on Monday.
Arbery’s case is one in a series of killings of Black people in recent years that have drawn attention to the issue of racism in the US criminal justice system and law enforcement. It also highlighted the broader issue of US gun violence.
The slain man’s father, Marcus Arbery, told the court during the first hearing: “These three devils have broken my heart into pieces that cannot be found or repaired.”
Referring to Travis McMichael, he added: “You hate Black people.”
“I struggled to come to the realisation that a father could actually accompany his son to take a life,” Wanda Cooper Jones, Arbery’s mother, told the second hearing in urging a life sentence for Gregory McMichael.
Travis McMichael, who declined his right to testify at the hearing, had asked through his lawyer to be transferred out of the state prison system into a federal prison he perceived to be safer. Wood said the rules required that McMichael return to the state prison system where he is already serving a life sentence.
His lawyer, Amy Lee Copeland, said he has received death threats.
“This case involves at least in part concerns of vigilante justice,” she told the court. “I realise the rich irony, judge, in expressing my concern that my client will face vigilante justice himself.”
Federal prosecutors argued any such transfer would amount to special treatment with no legal basis.
The three men were convicted last November in state court of murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal intent to commit a felony, with a jury rejecting self-defense claims. They have appealed.
Arbery, an avid jogger and fitness buff, was running through the leafy mostly white Satilla Shores neighbourhood, near Brunswick, on a February 2020 afternoon when the McMichaels decided to grab their guns, jump in a pickup truck and give chase. Their neighbour, Bryan, joined the chase in his own pickup truck and pulled out his cellphone to record Travis McMichael firing a shotgun at Arbery at close range. Arbery had nothing on him besides his running clothes and sneakers.
The video emerged months later, prompting anti-racism protests in many US cities because the McMichaels and Bryan had not been arrested after a local prosecutor concluded the killing was justified.
NO EVIDENCE CONNECTING ARBERY TO THEFTS
The McMichaels have said they believed that Arbery appeared suspicious, speaking of a series of neighbourhood break-ins. No evidence ever emerged connecting Arbery to any Satilla Shore thefts.
In the hate crimes trial, the McMichaels had agreed to plead guilty and the son acknowledged in court that he singled out Arbery because of his “race and colour”. The judge rejected the plea agreement because it would have bound her to a 30-year sentence to be served in federal prison before the men were returned to the Georgia prison system. The plea deals were subsequently withdrawn.