For the second time in a year, the three white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery in 2020 were convicted by a jury, but this time in federal court, where the defendants were found guilty of a hate crime.
One day after closing arguments brought the trial to an end, a jury of eight white people, three Black people and one Hispanic person returned a guilty verdict, deliberating for less than four hours. In their closing arguments, prosecutors said the defendants acted as vigilantes.
The federal convictions were a victory for Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, who along with Black faith leaders pressured the U.S. Department of Justice to drop a compromised plea deal with Gregory and Travis McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan. Under that agreement, the men would have served their prison sentence in a federal facility that had better living conditions than a state prison.
Cooper-Jones said that Tuesday’s (February 22) verdict wouldn’t have happened “if it wasn’t for the fight that the family put up.”
“What the DOJ did today, they were made to do today. It wasn’t because of what they wanted to do. They were made to do their job today.”
The DOJ in recent months has been heavily criticized by Black civil rights leaders and activists who accused the Department of not doing enough to bring people who kill Blacks to justice.
In Chicago, activists are still demanding that federal charges be brought against Officer Jason Van Dyke, who was released this month from prison after serving just over three years for fatally shooting teenager Laquan McDonald 16 times in 2014.
The DOJ also has been pressured to investigate many bomb threats that have rocked Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) since January.
But in Minneapolis, another federal trial surrounding the three white men involved in George Floyd’s murder was coming to an end as both sides made their closing arguments. Jurors were expected to begin deliberating on the men’s fate this week.
In Georgia, defense attorneys countered that Arbery was fatally shot in self-defense and had acted suspiciously during prior trips to the Satilla Shores neighborhood, mirroring arguments made in the state trial. Defense attorneys also reiterated that the trial was not about murder as they argued prosecutors had not proved beyond a reasonable doubt that their clients acted on race.
Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan are all already serving life in prison for Arbery’s murder. Now they will be jail even longer.
During the federal crimes trial, the McMichaels and Bryan each were accused of interfering with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race, as well as attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels were also accused of using weapons during a crime of violence as both were armed during the deadly chase.
Prosecutors argued that the McMichaels and Bryan violated Arbery’s rights when they willfully interfered with his right to enjoy a public road in the Satilla Shores neighborhood because of Arbery’s race.
Arbery, 25 was killed two years ago in the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside of Brunswick, Georgia.
The McMichaels said they chased Arbery in a pickup truck because they suspected him of stealing from a home under construction. Bryan, who lived down the street, joined the chase in his own truck after he saw Arbery jog past his house during the pursuit.
He filmed the viral cell phone video that shows Travis McMichael fatally shooting Arbery at close range with his Remington shotgun. He was being chased by Travis McMichael and his father Greg while Bryan filmed the pursuit. An autopsy showed that Arbery was shot twice in the chest.
During the racially charged trial, Reverend Jesse Jackson and Black clergymen from across the country visited the courthouse to support Arbery’s parents.
All three of Arbery’s killers were convicted of murder last year and sentenced in January to life in prison. Bryan was given the possibility of parole.
In the federal trial, prosecutors presented text messages and social media posts from Travis McMichael and Bryan, who used racial slurs when referring to Black people. One witness also testified that Gregory McMichael disparaged the late civil rights champion Julian Bond and said he wished all Black people would die.
The day before the trial began, the McMichaels plea deal fell apart. Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the initial terms of the deal, which would have seen Travis sentenced to 30 years in federal prison to be served concurrently with his state sentence.
Arbery’s family strongly opposed the plea deal in court and accused the U.S. Justice Department of betrayal after the agreement became public.
After the verdict, Cooper-Jones during a press conference outside the courthouse said, “I now want to address the members of the DOJ. I’m very thankful that you guys brought these charges of hate crime, but back on January 31, you guys accepted a plea deal with these three murderers who took my son’s life,” Cooper-Jones said.