BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Three men were convicted of murder Wednesday in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, the Black man who was running empty-handed through a Georgia subdivision when the white strangers chased him, trapped him on a quiet street and blasted him with a shotgun.
The February 2020 slaying drew limited attention at first. But when video of the shooting leaked online, Arbery’s death quickly became another example in the nation’s reckoning of racial injustice in the way Black people are treated in their everyday lives.
Now the men all face a mandatory sentence of life in prison. The judge will decide whether their sentences are served with or without the possibility of parole.
As the first of 23 guilty verdicts were read, Arbery’s father had to leave the courtroom after leaping up and shouting. At the reading of the last criminal count, Arbery’s mother dropped her head and quietly pumped her fists.
“He didn’t do nothing but run and dream,” Marcus Arbery Sr. said of his son. Outside the courthouse, dozens of Black supporters hugged and cried.
The jury deliberated for about 10 hours before convicting Greg McMichael, son Travis McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan.
The McMichaels grabbed guns and jumped in a pickup truck to pursue the 25-year-old Arbery after seeing him running outside the Georgia port city of Brunswick. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own pickup and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael fatally shooting Arbery.
The father and son told police they suspected Arbery was a fleeing burglar. But the prosecution argued that the men provoked the fatal confrontation and that there was no evidence Arbery committed any crimes in the neighborhood.
“We commend the courage and bravery of this jury to say that what happened on Feb. 23, 2020, to Ahmaud Arbery — the hunting and killing of Ahmaud Arbery — it was not only morally wrong but legally wrong, and we are thankful for that,” said Latonia Hines, Cobb County executive assistant district attorney.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski added: “The jury system works in this country. And when you present the truth to people and they see it, they will do the right thing.”
Travis McMichael, 35, stood for the verdict, his lawyer’s arm around his shoulder. At one point, he lowered his head to his chest. After the verdicts were read, as he stood to leave, he mouthed “love you” to his mother in the courtroom gallery.
Greg McMichael, 65, hung his head when the judge read his first guilty verdict. Bryan, 52, bit his lip.
Speaking outside the courthouse, Ben Crump, attorney for Arbery’s father, repeatedly said that “the spirit of Ahmaud defeated the lynch mob.”
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, thanked the crowd gathered for the verdict and said she did not think she would see this day.
“It’s been a long fight. It’s been a hard fight. But God is good,” she said, adding that her son would now rest in peace.
Travis McMichaels’ attorneys said both he and his father feel that they did the right thing, and that they believed the video would help their case. But they also said the McMichaels regret that Arbery got killed.
“I can tell you honestly, these men are sorry for what happened to Ahmaud Arbery,” attorney Jason Sheffield said. “They are sorry he’s dead. They are sorry for the tragedy that happened because of the choices they made to go out there and try to stop him.”
They planned to appeal.
Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, said his team was “disappointed with the verdict, but we respect it.” He planned to file new legal motions after Thanksgiving.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley did not immediately schedule a sentencing date, saying that he wanted to give both sides time to prepare.
In a statement, President Joe Biden said Arbery’s killing was a “devastating reminder” of how much more work the country has to do in the fight for racial justice.
“While the guilty verdicts reflect our justice system doing its job, that alone is not enough. Instead, we must recommit ourselves to building a future of unity and shared strength, where no one fears violence because of the color of their skin,” Biden said.
At a news conference in Chicago, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. praised the jury’s verdict.
Jackson attended the trial for a day last week after defense attorneys unsuccessfully tried to bar the civil rights leader and other Black ministers from sitting in the courtroom.
“When I went to Brunswick two weeks ago… I was convinced that jury was incapable of being just,” Jackson said. “I changed my mind while I was there. The people in that community did not want to be a sanctuary for killers.”
Gov. J.B. Pritzker tweeted, “We will know true justice when Black men can go for a job without fear that they might not return home to their families.”
Mayor Lori Lightfoot, in a statement, said, Arbery “was killed for no reason other than the color of his skin, and regardless of the accountability that his killers now face — that fact speaks volumes about how far we have yet to go.”
Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle called the details of Arbery’s death “especially shocking and tragic” because he was “running for his life” in his final moments.
“Despite the guilty verdict, the details of this case demonstrate the urgent need for us to reform our system of justice.” Preckwinkle tweeted. “We cannot allow violence to be perpetrated under such a thin guise of self-defense. We cannot embolden individuals to act on their prejudices. The recent verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse case underscores the need for change. Working with my fellow officials, I commit to holding our justice system accountable to the values on which it is said to be founded.”
Though prosecutors did not argue that racism motivated the killing, federal authorities have charged them with hate crimes, alleging that they chased and killed Arbery because he was Black. That case is scheduled to go to trial in February.
The disproportionately white jury received the case around midday Tuesday.
Soon after returning to court Wednesday morning, the jury sent a note to the judge asking to view two versions of the shooting video — the original and one that investigators enhanced to reduce shadows — three times apiece.
Jurors returned to the courtroom to see the videos and listen again the 911 call one of the defendants made from the bed of a pickup truck about 30 seconds before the shooting.
On the 911 call the jury reviewed, Greg McMichael tells an operator: “I’m out here in Satilla Shores. There’s a Black male running down the street.”
He then starts shouting, apparently as Arbery is running toward the McMichael’s idling truck with Bryan’s truck coming up behind him: “Stop right there! Damn it, stop! Travis!” Gunshots can be heard a few second later.
The graphic video emerged two months later, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case, quickly arresting the three men.
Defense attorneys contend the McMichaels were attempting a legal citizen’s arrest when they set off after Arbery, seeking to detain and question him after he was seen running from a nearby home under construction.
Travis McMichael testified that he shot Arbery in self-defense. He said Arbery turned and attacked with his fists while running past the truck where McMichael stood with his shotgun.
At the time of his death, Arbery had enrolled at a technical college and was preparing to study to become an electrician like his uncles.
Shaun Seals, a 32-year-old lifelong Brunswick resident, rushed to the courthouse to join the crowd cheering the verdict.
“We just came out to witness history,” said Seals, pushing his 10-month-old daughter in a stroller.
Seals, who is Black, called the convictions a victory not just for his community but for the nation.
“It’s not going to heal most of the wounds” from a long history of inequality, he said. “But it’s a start and shows people are trying.”
Contributing: Andy Grimm, Madeline Kenney