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BRUNSWICK, GA — A Glynn County jury found three white men guilty of multiple counts of murder each on Wednesday after prosecutors said they cornered and killed Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, as he ran through their neighborhood in February 2020.
The jury reached a verdict in the second day of deliberations Wednesday after rewatching the shooting video central to the case, which was part of the national conversation of racial injustice.
Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., invoked Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law and claimed self-defense in the killing of Arbery after he explored an unfinished home during a run on Feb. 23, 2020.
Lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told a crowd outside the courthouse, “The verdict today is a verdict based on the facts, the evidence. That was our goal, to bring that to the jury, so they can do the right thing. The jury system works in this country.”
Travis McMichael was found guilty of malice murder, four counts of felony murder and other charges; in total he was convicted on nine criminal charges.
Gregory McMichael was found not guilty of malice murder but guilty of four counts of felony murder and other charges.
Bryan was found not guilty of malice murder and not guilty of one count of felony murder but guilty of three counts of felony murder and other charges.
When the guilty verdict against Travis McMichael was announced, the judge had Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, who made a noise, removed before continuing.
Malice and felony murder convictions both carry a minimum penalty of life in prison. The judge decides whether that comes with or without the possibility of parole. Even if the possibility of parole is granted, a person convicted of murder must serve 30 years before becoming eligible. Multiple murder convictions are merged for the purposes of sentencing, according to the Associated Press.
Each count of aggravated assault carries a prison term of at least one year but not more than 20 years. False imprisonment is punishable by a sentence of one to 10 years in prison.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley has not yet set a sentencing date.
A CNN legal analyst said that the elder McMichael and Bryan were seen by the jury as culpable in chasing Arbery, and that their actions enabled Travis McMichael, who fatally shot the victim. That’s why Gregory McMichael and Bryan were acquitted on the charge of malice murder but found guilty on felony murder charges, analyst Elie Honig said.
A member of the defense team spoke briefly to reporters outside the courthouse Wednesday afternoon and said they will appeal the convictions.
“Honestly, with my whole heart, I’ve lived with these men day in and day out since the last year and a half,” said defense attorney Jason Sheffield. “I can tell you honestly they are sorry about what happened with Ahmaud Arbery. It was a choice they made to go out there and try to stop him.”
Defense attorney Robert Rubin said the video shows Travis McMichael acted in self-defense.
One likely basis for appeal could be the exclusion of certain evidence from the trial, said University of Georgia law professor emeritus Ron Carlson. Defense attorneys had sought to introduce evidence of Arbery’s criminal record, records on his mental health and the fact that he was on probation. They also wanted to have a use-of-force expert testify. But the judge would not allow any of that evidence.
“They’ll argue that relevant evidence helpful to the defense was excluded by the trial judge and that was an error,” Carlson said.
It’s also possible that appellate attorneys could find other grounds for appeal after scouring transcripts and jury instructions, and speaking with jurors.
Both of the McMichaels and Bryan still face federal charges. A federal grand jury in April indicted the men on hate crimes charges. The federal indictment says the men targeted Arbery because he was Black. It’s an entirely separate case that’s not affected by the state trial’s outcome, AP reported.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood has scheduled jury selection in the federal trial to start Feb. 7. All three men are charged with one count of interference with civil rights and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels were also charged with using, carrying and brandishing a firearm during a crime of violence.
Jurors on Wednesday morning reviewed the 911 call and the cell phone video of the 25-year-old Black man being struck by a shotgun blast on a residential street.
The jury sent a note to Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley soon after returning to court Wednesday morning asking to view two versions of the shooting video — the original and one that investigators enhanced to reduce shadows — three times apiece.
The defendants had said they thought Arbery was a burglar.
On the 911 call the jury reviewed, Greg McMichael tells a 911 operator: “I’m out here in Satilla Shores. There’s a Black male running down the street.”
He then starts shouting, apparently as Arbery is running toward the McMichaels’ idling truck with Bryan’s truck coming up behind him: “Stop right there! Damn it, stop! Travis!” Gunshots can be heard a few second later.
Prosecutors said Bryan, who was unarmed, saw the McMichaels chasing Arbery in a pickup truck as he ran away and joined in the pursuit. Bryan’s truck struck Arbery, who was then confronted by Travis McMichael, armed with a shotgun.
Bryan filmed the encounter from his mobile phone — footage from the video was shown in court — as Travis McMichael shot and killed Arbery.
The trial began Nov. 8, with jury deliberations starting about 11:30 a.m. Tuesday. No verdict was reached that day, and the jury resumed its work just after 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. The verdicts were announced about 1:30 p.m.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski took two hours Tuesday to present her final rebuttal to the jury in an effort to convince members they should convict the McMichaels and Bryan for malice murder, two counts each of aggravated assault and false imprisonment charges. The charges are all felonies that prosecutors say contributed to Arbery’s death.
Walmsley told the jury that self-defense laws do not apply to the person who is the aggressor in a confrontation.
Gregory McMichael, a former police officer and investigator for the Glynn County District Attorney’s Office, had changed his story several times during police interviews. Officer testimony revealed the elder McMichael claimed Arbery had been burglarizing houses in the neighborhood, then revised his story to claim Arbery entered only the construction site.
McMichael asserted he performed a civic duty when he confronted Arbery, but that claim was scuttled by admissions from police and the homeowner that the defendants weren’t legally empowered to confront Arbery.
The case is one of several that sparked a nationwide reckoning n racial justice as people across the country protested killings of Black people by white police officers — or by white civilians acting under the auspices of police authority.
Arbery’s name joined those of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Stephon Clark and Botham Jean as examples of a justice system seemingly tilted against minority members, and as symbols for the need for drastic change.
Among the complaints regarding Arbery’s case is that no one was held responsible at first for his slaying.
Police did not charge the McMichaels or Bryan immediately following the shooting. The three remained free for more than two months until the cell phone video of the shooting was leaked online and Kemp asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to take over the case.
Glynn County’s now-former district attorney, Jackie Johnson, was indicted in September on charges that she violated her oath of office when it was learned that Gregory McMichael, her former investigator, called her asking for help after the shooting.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr assigned the case to the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office after Johnson resigned and the district attorneys in the Brunswick and Waycross judicial districts recused themselves. In May, lead prosecutor Jesse Evans resigned from the Cobb District Attorney’s Office, and Dunikoski took the helm.
Bryan and the McMichaels were indicted in federal court in April for, among other things, hate crimes and kidnapping charges. Federal prosecutors accused them of injuring and intimidating Arbery “by force and threat of force” because he was an African American.
As civil unrest erupted across the country during the global COVID-19 pandemic, the nation’s eyes trained on one trial after another. In many instances, different judges, prosecutors, juries and grand juries failed to convict or even prosecute those accused in the cases, or rendered either charges that fell short of murder or resulted in lenient punishment.
In Louisville, Kentucky, one officer was charged with wanton endangerment when Taylor’s apartment and bedroom were riddled with bullets while she slept. In Dallas, Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 out of a possible 99 years after she walked into Jean’s apartment and killed him, claiming she believed she was in her own residence and was being threatened by a dangerous intruder.
In Minneapolis, a jury composed of three Black men, a Black woman and two people of mixed race — half the jury in a community that is 17 percent multicultural — found former police officer Derek Chauvin guilty of murder for kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes.
Closer to home, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis declined to prosecute Atlanta Police Officer Garrett Rolfe, who faces felony murder charges, and the state attorney general will soon assign a special prosecutor to proceed with the case. And the prosecutors and defense attorneys in the trial for Bryan and the McMichaels seated a jury with only one Black person.
In Glynn County court, jurors watched video of Arbery wandering through the unfinished home on Satilla Drive, which prompted suspicion that he’d been stealing from neighbors’ homes; and an officer who spoke with Gregory McMichael before the shooting testified that the homeowner did not authorize anyone to chase Arbery. Visits to the courtroom by the Rev. Al Sharpton, and then the Rev. Jesse Jackson, sparked multiple mistrial demands from Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, and a resulting prayer rally of hundreds of the “Black pastors” he decried.
A Georgia Bureau of Investigations medical examiner described how Arbery’s outstretched hand was in front of the shotgun muzzle as Travis McMichael fired the shotgun, and a tearful McMichael admitted Arbery initially posed him no threat and described being hit by Arbery as he fired.
In closing arguments, Travis McMichael’s attorney, Jason Sheffield, sought to hammer home his self-defense assertion, reminding the jury that the prosecution team had to “prove that Travis at the time he raised that gun was not in fear.”
Gregory McMichael’s defense team held to the claim that he was there to conduct a citizen’s arrest for suspicion that Arbery had unlawfully entered a home on Satilla Drive.
“Greg McMichael was authorized by law to attempt to execute a citizen’s arrest, to try to detain Ahmaud Arbery for the police to come and do their job,” defense attorney Laura Hogue told the jury.
Gough filed yet another motion to declare mistrial before he began his closing arguments, claiming that armed members of the Black Panthers were marching around the Glynn County Courthouse as a way of intimidating the jury. In his final statement of defense for Bryan, he said his client was unarmed at the time of the shooting.
“Roddie Bryan didn’t shoot anyone.“
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