Three white men were found guilty Wednesday of felony murder in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was running in their neighborhood when they confronted him last year.
The nearly all-white jury convicted Travis McMichael of malice murder, felony murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
His father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were acquitted of the top charge. All now face up to life in prison.
“Even though this is not a celebration, it is a reflection to acknowledge that the spirit of Ahmaud defeated the lynch mob,” civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, said outside the courthouse Wednesday afternoon.
Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, said that her son “will now rest in peace.”
“It’s been a long fight. It’s been a hard fight,” she said. “I never saw this day back in 2020. I never thought this day would come. But God is good,” she said.
The McMichaels and Bryan chased Arbery in pickup trucks after they spotted him in their neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020. Travis McMichael shot Arbery, 25, who was Black, with a shotgun at close range. Bryan filmed the fatal encounter on his cellphone.
The three men were arrested months later after the leaked video brought the world’s attention to the case.
Arbery’s family and civil rights leaders have likened his death to a modern-day lynching. The men also face federal hate crime charges.
The jury deliberated for about 11 hours before reaching its decision.
Each man faced a total of nine counts: one count of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, and one count each of false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
Travis McMichael was convicted on all counts. His father, Gregory McMichael, was found guilty on all charges except the most serious, malice murder. Bryan was also acquitted of malice murder. He was convicted on three of the four counts of felony murder, one of the two counts of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley had instructed jurors that they could consider simple assault, reckless conduct and reckless driving as lesser charges to aggravated assault for Bryan.
About an hour into the second day of deliberations Wednesday, the jurors asked to review footage of the fatal encounter and a 911 call that Gregory McMichael made on the day of the shooting. The jury viewed two videos — one the original cellphone video and the other a “high contrast” version of the same video — three times each while seated in the courtroom.
Arbery’s father was removed from the courtroom as the verdict was being read after he audibly celebrated the announcement that Travis McMichael was guilty of malice murder.
“He could not contain it any further. Think about how long he and Wanda have been enduring all the innuendo, all the allegations, all the character assassinations,” Crump said when speaking outside the courthouse after the verdict. “Just imagine all they went through.”
The defense had argued that the men suspected Arbery was a burglar and that residents in the Satilla Shores subdivision were “on edge.” Arbery was recorded on security camera video visiting a partially built home in the neighborhood several times. The videos did not show Arbery taking anything from the property. The last video was recorded the afternoon he was killed. Arbery could be seen visiting the home minutes before he was chased by Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael and Bryan, who had separate defense teams.
The defense had sought to convince the jury that their clients were trying to execute a citizen’s arrest, which was legal at the time. Travis McMichael’s attorneys have said he opened fire in self-defense.
During the trial, Travis McMichael testified that he shot Arbery after he was “struck.”
“We were face to face. And being struck, that’s when I shot,” he testified. He said he believed he was in “a life-or-death situation.”
Under cross-examination by lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski on his second day of testimony, Travis McMichael said that Arbery hadn’t shown a weapon or spoken to him at all before he raised his shotgun. Gregory McMichael and Bryan did not testify.
Attorneys for Travis McMichael said they intend to appeal the verdict, describing it as “very disappointing and sad.”
“This is a very difficult day for Travis McMichael and Greg McMichael,” Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael said. “These are two men who honestly believed that what they were doing was the right thing to do. However, a Glynn County jury has spoken. They have found them guilty. They will be sentenced.”
Kevin Gough, an attorney for Bryan, told NBC affiliate WLTV that he would also appeal and said that while he respects the jury’s verdict, he believes his client should have been found not guilty.
In her closing argument, Dunikoski told the jury that the defendants made a series of “assumptions and driveway decisions” that led to Arbery’s death and that the three men had no “immediate knowledge” that a crime had occurred. She said immediate knowledge of a crime is necessary to claim citizen’s arrest. Without the claim of citizen’s arrest, Dunikoski told the jurors during closing, the men cannot claim that they acted in self-defense.
“If you determine that this was not a citizen’s arrest, this was not legitimate, he had no probable cause, he can’t do this based on the law, then guess what?” Dunikoski said. “They’re not justified in killing him. They are not justified in any of the felonies they committed against him.”
Dunikoski was cheered outside the courthouse after the verdict.
“The verdict today was a verdict based on the facts. Based on the evidence,” Dunikoski said. “That was our goal, to bring that to that jury so that they could do the right thing.”
Dunikoski, a senior assistant district attorney in the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, was assigned the case last year by the state attorney general’s office after local prosecutors and law enforcement faced scrutiny over their handling of the case.
Prosecutor Jackie Johnson, the Brunswick-area district attorney, recused herself from the case shortly after the shooting, saying that Gregory McMichael had been an investigator in her office for more than 30 years as a former Glynn County police officer.
She was later indicted by a grand jury on charges of violation of oath of public officer and obstruction of a police officer. Johnson was accused of “showing favor and affection to Greg McMichael during the investigation,” according to the indictment document released in September. She also was alleged to have hindered two police officers “by directing that Travis McMichael should not be placed under arrest.”
The second prosecutor, George Barnhill, recused himself in April 2020 and defended the actions of the McMichaels and Bryan. In the letter recusing himself, Barnhill said the three had “solid first hand probable cause” to pursue Arbery, a “burglary suspect,” and stop him.
The case was transferred that same month to Thomas Durden, the district attorney for Georgia’s Atlantic Judicial Circuit. Durden, who eventually asked to be removed from the case because of a lack of resources, asked the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to investigate after the leaked cellphone footage prompted widespread outrage.
The McMichaels were arrested two days later on May 7, 2020, more than two months after the shooting. Bryan was arrested later that month, days after the Cobb County Judicial Circuit was tapped to handle the case.