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Ahmaud Arbery’s Murderers Receive Additional Heavy Prison Time for Federal Hate Crimes, Fail to Get Moved Out of State Prison

 
Ahmaud Arbery's accused killers Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, William Bryan

Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael, and William Bryan are seen in jail booking photos.

Travis McMichael, the gunman who murdered Ahmaud Arbery, received another life sentence for a federal hate crime on Monday. He must first serve his state sentence, despite fears that fellow prisoners in Georgia lockup will mete out a “backdoor death penalty.”

Later in the day, his father Gregory McMichael met the same fate. Their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan received a 35 year sentence.

Unlike the McMichaels, Bryan also received some measure of leniency for his lesser role in the offence in state court, where a judge gave the 52-year-old the possibility of parole.

“Let no one think that 420 months in a federal prison is a light sentence, because you don’t deserve a light sentence,” U.S. District Judge Lisa G. Wood told Bryan, noting that he would exit prison, if at all, as a nearly 90-year-old

Judge Wood declined all three men’s request for a transfer to federal custody on safety grounds, saying that she does not have the power to choose his prison.

“I do deny that request, and turn instead to the rules that apply,” Wood said, noting that the state of Georgia charged, tried, convicted and sentenced him first.

Her additional sentence of life plus 10 years make little practical difference for McMichael, as neither the state nor federal terms offer any possibility of parole.

On Feb. 23, 2020, the McMichaels and Bryan pursued a young Arbery as he was running in their neighborhood of Satilla Shores. The men had claimed at trial that they believed Arbery was behind a string of burglaries in the area, but there was scant evidence that Arbery did anything other than enter a construction site to observe it.

After a state jury in Georgia convicted all three men of Arbery’s murder, they all received life sentences. Only Bryan received the opportunity for parole after 30 years for what a state judge deemed to be his more limited role. A federal jury subsequently convicted the trio for violating Arbery’s rights “because of his race and color,” after hearing an earful of their racist comments at trial.

Before the latter trial, Arbery’s Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones, father Marcus Arbery and other family members objected to a plea agreement that would have allowed the men to serve a portion of their sentence in federal custody. They continued to urge the court to keep the men in state custody.

“These three devils have broken my heart into pieces that can’t be found or repaired,” Marcus Arbery told the court.

Cooper-Jones emphasized to the judge that the pain of her loss is profound and enduring.

“Your honor, I feel every shot that was fired every day,” she told the judge. “Every morning, I wake up and tell myself it’s another day without my ‘Quez.'”

In the parents’ remarks — and those of Arbery’s aunts and his uncle — all urged Judge Wood to leave the men in state custody.

“They’re still trying to beat the system,” uncle Gary Arbery said.

Aunt Diane Arbery reflected on her nephew’s life and his love of running.

“We miss everything about you. I pray that you can rest in peace, my sweet boy,” the aunt said. “You are free to run wherever you choose to run in heaven, my sweet boy.”

The family members voiced similar sentiments during the sentencing proceedings of Greg McMichael and Bryan.

Before the sentencing proceedings, McMichael’s attorney Amy Lee Copeland noted that Georgia state prisons have seen a dramatic spike in homicides behind bars, and that her client has received numerous death threats.

Copeland said that the judge should not impose a sentence based on where she believes McMichael is more likely to be mistreated. She said that McMichael received more than 800 death threats before he stopped counting, and she added that the image of him with his bright red hair is circulating inside Georgia prisons.

“There are several statutory sentencing purposes,” Copeland wrote in a defense brief. “Retribution and revenge are not among them, no matter how unpopular the defendant.”

In court, Copeland noted that neither the state nor the federal government pursued capital punishment. She said that her client McMichael shouldn’t get a “backdoor death penalty” from his fellow prisoners.

“This case concerns themes of vigilante justice,” Copeland noted, acknowledging the “irony” of her concerns that vigilante justice will be meted out to her client behind bars.

The Department of Justice opened an investigation into dangerous conditions inside Georgia’s Department of Corrections.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Barbara Bernstein noted that the Justice Department will fight for the rights of all inmates, including McMichael, but it will not seek special treatment for him.

Travis McMichael declined to make a statement on his own behalf, but his father did, addressing Arbery’s family directly.

“I understand that the loss that you’ve endured is beyond description,” Gregory McMichael said in court. “I’m sure that my words mean very little to you, but I want to assure you that I didn’t want any of this to happen.”

He also apologized to his son, saying that he shouldn’t have been let him be in that situation.

Bryan also expressed “how sorry I am” to Arbery’s family.

“I never intended any harm to him,” he continued, adding later. “I pray every day to his family that they do find peace.”

Though Bryan was the sole defendant allowed the possibility of parole in state court, that is not possible in the federal system. Bryan’s attorney James Pete Theodocion said his client was not aware that the McMichaels had a gun when he joined the chase. Prosecutors noted that it was Bryan’s car that blocked Arbery’s last opportunity to exit Satilla Shores.

Update: Aug. 8, 2022 at 4:12 p.m. Eastern Time: This story now includes information about Greg McMichael and William Roddie Bryan’s sentences, which were imposed later in the day.

(Screenshot from the Law&Crime Network)

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on MSNBC, BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks.