Months after a Georgia jury convicted three men of murdering 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, the defendants’ federal counterpart unanimously found that their crimes were racially motivated. The jury returned a speedy and resounding verdict of convictions on all counts early on Tuesday morning, mere hours after the deliberations began late on Monday afternoon.
Gunman Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were condemned to serve life sentences for killing Arbery, following their murder convictions in November 2021. Only one of the men, Bryan, had the opportunity for parole 30 years into his sentence, the state judge determined in January.
Their federal prosecutions, running on a parallel track, sought to determine a different question than whether they committed the act of murder. The top charge asked the jury to find that the trio violated Arbery’s rights “because of [his] race and color.”
As they did in the state case, the men’s defense attorneys insisted that they only meant to stop what they believed to be a burglary in their neighborhood of Satilla Shores. There was no indication that Arbery committed that act, but Arbery was spotted in surveillance footage entering the under-construction property of Larry English, who testified that he never deputized anyone to guard his house. English also said it was common for people to enter and look around the site.
After seeing Arbery on the property on Feb. 23, 2020, the men chased him with their pickup trucks. Travis McMichael cornered and then shot Arbery. Defense attorneys said that this came after Arbery tried to swipe away his gun, and prosecutors said the 25-year-old was trying to protect himself when an armed pursuer left him nowhere else to run.
During the Georgia murder trial, the state strategically glossed over any racial motivations, and the lead prosecutor later said in an interview that this was because they did not know how such an argument would land with the jury. The federal trial put racial animus at the center of the case. Jurors heard two of the three men using the N-word and sharing virulently racist memes.
Travis McMichael was quoted saying of his workplace: “Zero n****rs work with me.” Trial evidence showed him repeatedly using racial slurs and sharing memes and online videos that did the same. One video entered into evidence had a country song title “Alabama N****r,” by a singer named Johnny Rebel, whose name appears to be a nod to the symbol of the “ordinary” Confederate soldier. Prosecutors said he also commented on a social media post of a man with a firecracker in his nose.
“It would have been cooler if it blew the fucking n****r’s head off,” the gunman was quoted as saying.
Prosecutors claimed the apple did not fall far from the tree: A witness said that his father Greg McMichael launched into an anti-Black rant after the death of civil rights luminary Julian Bond. (His attorney Attilio J. Balbo disputed the accuracy of the account.)
Bryan, the only member of the trio to have the possibility of parole, was said to have disapproved of his daughter dating a Black man. “She has her a n****r now,” he said, according to trial evidence.
Each of the men’s lawyers took turns condemning the quoted language, and Bryan’s attorney James Pete Theodocion insisted that his client is “not obsessed with race.” Yet prosecutors did not have to prove racial hatred, only that assumptions, resentments or anger based on race were a “but-for” causation factor of their crimes.
Put together, the three men faced several charges, including interference with rights, and attempted kidnapping; the McMichaels also faced charges for using a firearm in a crime of violence. The McMichaels initially tried to resolve the charges without a trial, signalling a willingness to agree that their crimes were racially motivated in return for serving out the first 30 years of their sentence in federal custody. Arbery’s family opposed the deal, believing state custody would be harsher. U.S. District Judge Lisa G. Wood rejected the terms of the agreements late last month.
(Image via Law&Crime Network)
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