On Wednesday afternoon all 3 white men responsible for the death of Ahmaud Arbery were found guilty of multiple counts of felony murder. Gregory McMichael was found guilty of 4 counts; William Bryan Jr. was found guilty of 3. Travis McMichael, Gregory’s son and the man who attacked Ahmaud Arbery and shot him multiple times for the crime of jogging through a building site while Black, was found guilty of 5 counts of felony murder and an additional charge of malice murder. “Malice murder” is a different charge because Travis McMichael acted with the intent to kill Arbery, whereas “felony murder” exists for people who, like G. McMichael and Bryan, deliberately committed felonies that led to the murder of an individual.
In addition, the 3 were found guilty of multiple felony assault and false imprisonment charges. The murder convictions come with mandatory life sentences, and prosecutors told reporters they’ll be pressing for no chance at parole at the hearing, the date for which is still undetermined. It seems certain that the McMichaels, at least, will die in prison.
Despite being unarmed and having committed no crime apart from entering a building site without permission — something I and every kid I grew up with did on numerous occasions out of simple curiosity — it felt like Ahmaud Arbery has been on trial since his killing on February 23, 2020. The McMichaels saw him exit the building site and, after arming themselves, gave chase. Bryan joined in when he saw the action, with the mindless enthusiasm of hounds chasing a deer. Arbery repeatedly sought to avoid confrontation, only turning to face his pursuers when they pinned him with their trucks. Travis exited his truck with shotgun in hand and Arbery defended himself. In the struggle, he was shot multiple times and killed. Travis, whose truck proudly displayed the traitor’s flag, then called Arbery a “f*cking n——-“ before police arrived, according to William Bryan Jr. There were also numerous social media posts and text messages from Travis McMichael and Bryan with similar racial slurs suggesting their bigotry predisposed them to violence against a Black man like Arbery. Despite this, and thanks to the pervasive influence of white supremacy as well as Gregory McMichael’s past employment as a local cop and investigator, the 3 men faced no charges for 10 weeks after the shooting, and it’s almost certain they’d have gotten away with it had the footage of Arbery’s shooting not been leaked. The local prosecutor recused herself because G. McMichael previously worked for her - and is now facing charges of her own - and the next to examine the case, George Barnhill, wrote a letter to Glenn County police arguing the McMichaels and Bryan should not be charged with a crime because of Georgia’s “citizen’s arrest” law, which allows citizens to affect an arrest if they believe a crime has been committed. The idea that 3 armed white men can chase an unarmed Black man down the street with no evidence of lawbreaking apart from entering a building site is … insane, and the law has mostly been repealed as a result of this tragedy.
Race was almost never mentioned at trial. The prosecutors no doubt wanted to avoid complicating things for the 11/12ths white jury by giving them a political excuse to avoid a guilty plea. The defense, meanwhile, never specifically mentioned anyone’s race for obvious reasons. Their own actions, however, reflected their clients’ racial animus. The crux of their defense rested on claims the three white men chased and killed Arbery because of frequent local burglaries. There’s no evidence that there was much crime in the area, or what a man not visibly carrying anything might have taken from a job site. Power tools and bags of cement are difficult to hide in one’s pockets. It also turns out that despite the defendants’ claims, there were no local burglaries in all of 2019.
Attorney Kevin Gough requested the judge bar Black civil rights leaders from entering the courtroom, telling the judge “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here.” These statements did not go down well with either the judge or the public. Three days later the defense lawyers asked for a mistrial because Mr. Arbery’s mother broke down crying in the courtroom. This reasonable display of emotion, they argued, might bias the jury against their clients. During closing arguments Laura Hogue, lawyer for Gregory McMichael, shed what little illusion remained about the defense’s opinion of Mr. Arbery, telling the jury “Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.” It prompted outrage both inside and out of the courtroom. Jurors returned their guilty verdicts after about ten hours of deliberation.
It is not a surprise that three white Georgians felt empowered to chase down a jogging Black man. It shouldn’t be a surprise or cause for relief that the three were found guilty of all charges, yet here we are. A slamdunk case almost never came to trial thanks to local influence and bigotry. The defendants and their lawyers used every trick in the white supremacist playbook to justify their crimes. They were defending the neighborhood. They were afraid Arbery would overpower and kill them after they hunted him down. He was dirty and poor and had no business being there. These excuses and more failed to work, but only just. Had the video of the shooting and another of officers’ body-cam footage showing they knew of Gregory McMichael’s past in law enforcement never surfaced there is no doubt that both McMichaels and Bryan would be free men today.
Image sources (in order of posting): Getty Images, Sean Rayford; pool; Sean Rayford