ATLANTA — Before the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery were sentenced Monday on federal hate crimes charges, they asked a judge to consider not just the length of the sentences but also the location, a lawyer making argue that if his client were to go through the dangerous Georgia state prison system, he would be subject to “vigilante justice.”
The men did not get what they asked for.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said she had “neither the authority nor the inclination” to send the three white men to federal prison instead of the Georgia prison system, where the issues security concerns are so serious that they are being investigated by the Civil Rights Division of the US Department of Justice.
Judge Wood said the men would go to state prison first, as they were initially charged with murder by state authorities. At the same time, the judge handed down harsh sentences against the men for their federal crimes, which included the hate crime charge of “interference with rights” and attempted kidnapping.
Travis McMichael, the 36-year-old man who shot Mr Arbery with a shotgun, was given a life sentence. So was Mr McMichael’s 66-year-old father, Gregory McMichael. Their neighbor William Bryan, 52 – who joined the McMichaels in chasing Mr. Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, through their neighborhood on a Sunday afternoon in February 2020 – was sentenced to 35 years.
The federal sentences will be served alongside life sentences stemming from each man’s murder conviction in state court, for which only Mr. Bryan is considered eligible for parole – and only after 30 years.
In a statement, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said the sentences “make it clear that hate crimes have no place in our country and that the department will not relent in its efforts to hold accountable those who commit them.” .
Monday’s courtroom drama – which featured rare words of remorse in open court from Mr Bryan and the elder Mr McMichael – closed a chapter of “an excruciatingly painful journey”, as federal prosecutor Tara M. Lyons said, “for Ahmaud Arbery’s family and for an entire nation that mourned Ahmaud with his loved ones.
Lengthy federal sentences were expected for all three men after their sentencing in Judge Wood’s courtroom in February. The idea that they should be able to serve at least part of their time in a federal prison, as opposed to the Georgian prison system, became an emotional flashpoint when it was first proposed in the agreements of proposed plea for the McMichaels that were presented in court. in January; it was ultimately dismissed by Judge Wood.
In a filing last week, Amy Lee Copeland, Travis McMichael’s attorney, wrote that her client had received “hundreds of threats,” including “statements that his image circulated in the state prison system. on contraband cell phones, that people are “waiting for him,” that he shouldn’t come into the yard, and that correctional officers have promised they’ll be willing (whether for pay or for free) to keep some unlocked doors and turn their backs to allow inmates to harm her.
But members of Mr. Arbery’s family went to the federal courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia, on Monday and argued that the three men deserved no special treatment after their own notorious acts of vigilance against Mr. Arbery.
“These three demons broke my heart to pieces,” Marcus Arbery Sr., Mr. Arbery’s father, said in court Monday. He added that he hoped the men would “rot in state prison.”
In three separate hearings, defense attorneys for the three men requested that at least the first part of their clients’ sentences be served in the federal system. Ms Copeland noted the “rich irony” that her client was concerned about vigilante violence. But she pleaded for a “cooling off” period in federal prison to last for the duration of the appeals process. Putting her client in state prison now, she said, would “effectively” result in “a disguised death sentence.”
In announcing their investigation, federal officials said security issues in Georgia’s prison system have been compounded by staffing shortages, training issues and other factors. Ms Copeland cited a Georgia Public Broadcasting analysis that found 53 homicides took place in Georgia state prisons in 2020 and 2021.
The McMichaels and Mr. Bryan are currently being held at a local jail, the Glynn County Detention Center, where they have been since their arrest in May 2020. They had been walking free for weeks after Travis McMichael shot Mr. Arbery at close range with a shotgun.
The fatal shooting came after the men, in a pair of pickup trucks, chased Mr Arbery, who was on foot, through their suburban neighborhood of Satilla Shores, just outside Brunswick. The chase and murder were captured on video that was widely circulated on the internet, sparking outrage around the world and claims from civil rights leaders that Mr Arbery had been the subject of a modern-day lynching.
Moments before the chase, Mr. Arbery had been inside a house under construction; the McMichaels had suspected him of committing a series of property crimes. Relatives of Mr Arbery said Mr Arbery, an avid runner, went jogging on Sunday. In court proceedings, prosecutors argued that the three defendants harbored racial animosity toward black people.
In court on Monday, AJ Balbo, the lawyer for Gregory McMichael, asked for leniency, noting that his client suffered from heart problems and bouts of depression and anxiety. Mr. Bryan’s attorney, J. Pete Theodocion, noted that his client, unlike the McMichaels, had not seized a weapon when he joined the suit. Prosecutors, however, noted that Mr. Bryan used his truck to block Mr. Arbery as he attempted to flee the neighborhood.
Judge Wood said she spent a lot of time thinking about appropriate sentences for men. At one point, she referenced the February 2022 federal trial she presided over, in which all three men were convicted of federal hate crimes.
It was a fair trial, Judge Wood said – “the kind of trial Ahmaud Arbery didn’t get before he was shot and killed”.
The three men did not speak during their trials. But on Monday, Mr Bryan apologized to Mr Arbery’s family: ‘I never meant to hurt him,’ he said.
Travis McMichael declined to address the court. But his father spoke before his sentencing. “The loss you have suffered is indescribable,” Gregory McMichael told the Arbery family. “I’m sure my words mean very little to you. But I want to assure you that I never wanted that to happen.
The McMichaels each received additional sentences, to be executed consecutively rather than simultaneously, for their use of firearms in the incident. Technically, Mr. Bryan was granted 447 months, including 27 months leave for time served.
“By the time you complete your federal sentence, you will be almost 90 years old,” the judge told Mr. Bryan. “But, again, Mr. Arbery never had the good fortune to be 26.”