Hate crimes trial in Arbery killing will put racism up front

Ahmaud Arbery’s mother Wanda Cooper-Jones, center, walks out of the Glynn County Courthouse surrounded by supporters after a judge sentenced Greg McMichael, his son, Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan to life in prison, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Brunswick, Ga. The three white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery were sentenced Friday to life in prison, with a judge denying any chance of parole for the father and son who armed themselves and initiated the deadly permute of the 25-year-old Black man. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

Sentenced to life in prison for murder, the three white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery will soon stand trial on federal hate crimes charges in which jurors will have to decide whether the slaying of the running Black man was motivated by racism.

The sentences imposed by a judge Friday in Glynn County Superior Court concluded the state of Georgia’s criminal case in the slaying of 25-year-old Arbery, in which a jury returned guilty verdicts the day before Thanksgiving.

A month from now, on Feb. 7, a federal judge has scheduled jury selection to begin in the three men’s second trial in U.S. District Court. And evidence of racism that state prosecutors chose not to present at the murder trial is expected to be front and center.

An indictment last year charged father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan with violating Arbery’s civil rights when they pursued the running man in pickup trucks and cut off his escape from their neighborhood. Bryan recorded cellphone video of the chase’s deadly end, when Travis McMichael blasted Arbery at close range with a shotgun.

The Feb. 23, 2020, killing just outside the port city of Brunswick became part of a greater national reckoning on racial injustice when the video leaked online two months later. Though an investigator testified at a pretrial court hearing that Bryan said he heard Travis McMichael utter a racist slur as Arbery lay dying in the street, state prosecutors never presented that information to the jury during the murder case.

That evidence should be key in the federal trial, where the McMichaels and Bryan are charged with targeting Arbery because he was Black.

At a hearing Friday, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley sentenced both McMichaels to life in prison with no chance of parole. The judge sentenced Bryan to life with a possibility for parole once he’s served 30 years.

Despite those severe penalties, Arbery’s family said the hate crimes case remains important. 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.

“They killed him because he was a Black man,” Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, told reporters outside the Glynn County courthouse Friday.

Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother, said it’s important for federal case to expose racist motives behind the killing because “there is an issue of race taking place in this country. It has come front and center and it needs to be discussed.”

Georgia Bureau of Investigation Agent Richard Dial testified in June 2020, more than a year before the state trial, that Bryan told investigators he heard Travis McMichael say “f—-ing n—er” after shooting Arbery. Attorneys for Travis McMichael have denied he made the statement.

State prosecutors and investigators never mentioned that during the murder trial. Georgia law doesn’t require establishing motive to convict someone of murder. It merely requires proving a victim was killed with malice or during the commission of another felony.

Regardless, issues of race loomed large in the murder trial over Arbery’s death. The McMichaels and Bryan weren’t charged with crimes in the Black man’s killing until the shooting video became public two month later.

“Today your son has made history, because we have people who are being held accountable for lynching a Black man in America,” Benjamin Crump, a civil attorney for Arbery’s family, told the slain man’s parents after the sentencing hearing.

Defense attorneys during the trial contended the men pursued Arbery because they reasonably believed he had been committing burglaries in the neighborhood. Travis McMichael took the witness stand to testify that he opened fire in self-defense after Arbery ran at him and tried to grab his shotgun.

“He and Greg McMichael thought they were helping their community, thought they were helping police catch someone,” said Robert Rubin, an attorney for Travis McMichael.

Defense attorneys said they planned to appeal the convictions for murder and other state crimes within 30 days.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley called the killing “callous” and noted that when Arbery fell bleeding in the street the McMichaels “turned their backs, to give a disturbing image, and they walked away.”

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