Three white men were found guilty of murder Wednesday in the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man whose killing last year helped fuel national debate on racial profiling and vigilantism.
Gregory McMichael, 65, his son, Travis McMichael, 35, and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., 52, chased down Arbery in their pickup trucks as he ran through their Satilla Shores subdivision near the coastal port city of Brunswick before the younger McMichael shot him dead.
The men later said they were attempting to make a citizen’s arrest and that Travis McMichael was acting in self-defense, because he fired only after Arbery, in his final moments, had lunged for him and his gun.
The murder convictions carry a sentence of life in prison. The men were also convicted of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit a felony.
“We finally got justice for our boy,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said as she came out of the courtroom. “We finally got justice.”
It took jurors — 11 of them white and one Black in a county that is 27% Black — less than two days to reach their decision as a throng of family, friends, pastors and activists milled about outside the downtown courthouse.
The verdict came less than a week after a jury in Kenosha, Wis., delivered a not guilty verdict in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenaged vigilante who shot and killed two men and wounded another last year at violent protests against police brutality.
The slaying of Arbery on a quiet Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, 2020, startled Americans on both sides of the political divide.
It inspired tens of thousands of people across the nation to take part in #IRunWithMaud solidarity jogs and spurred Georgia’s staunchly Republican governor, Bryan Kemp, to sign into law the state’s first hate-crimes bill and repeal the state’s Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law.
The jury had to grapple with key questions: Why did the three men pursue Arbery as he ran through their predominantly white neighborhood? Did they have a legal right to carry out a citizen’s arrest? Did Travis McMichael act in self-defense?
Under Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law — a Civil War statute that was repealed six months ago but still applies in the trial because it was in effect at the time of the shooting — it was legal for an ordinary person to detain somebody suspected of committing a felony.
In weighing whether the defendants were justified in making a citizen’s arrest, however, the jury had to consider whether the men “reasonably suspected” that Arbery had committed a felony and was trying to escape.
As they deliberated in the Glynn County courthouse, jurors had to sort through a lengthy indictment with complex, interlocking charges.
Prosecutors charged the three defendants not just individually but as “parties concerned in the commission of a crime,” meaning that if the jury found that one man committed a felony, it could convict them all of that crime.
Lawyers presented widely different narratives in court. Prosecutors said the three men made “assumptions” about Arbery, had no evidence he had committed a crime and gave chase “because he was a Black man running down the street.”
Defense attorneys argued that Arbery was “not an innocent victim” and that the defendants had reasonable suspicion that Arbery had committed burglaries in their neighborhood and, therefore, “the right to perform a citizen’s arrest.”
During the trial, the jury was able to watch the final moments before the shooting. In a short, grainy cellphone video shot by Bryan as he drove his pickup truck, Arbery can be seen running along a sun-dappled street shaded by live oak trees toward a parked pickup truck. Gregory McMichael is standing up in the truck bed with a handgun, and Travis McMichael stands beside the open driver-side door holding a shotgun.
As Arbery runs past the truck on the passenger side, the camera pans away and then shows Arbery swerving to the left and disappearing briefly from view behind the truck.
A gunshot rings out, and Arbery can be seen on the driver’s side tussling with Travis McMichael over the gun. A second shot rings out, and Arbery wrestles with McMichael. A third shot is fired at point-blank range and Arbery stumbles to the ground.
The jury was also presented with security camera videos showing Arbery entering a home under construction in the neighborhood multiple times in the months leading up to Feb. 23 — the last time just minutes before he was shot dead.