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Men found guilty in Ahmaud Arbery's death receive federal sentences

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The three white men in Georgia convicted of hate crimes in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery were sentenced today in federal court. In 2020, the 25-year-old Black jogger was chased down in pickup trucks by Travis and Greg McMichael, along with William "Roddie" Bryan before Travis McMichael killed Arbery with a shotgun. The three men had already been sentenced on the state murder convictions. But today a federal judge sentenced the McMichaels to an additional life term for each and 35 years for Bryan. Here to talk about the sentencing is Benjamin Payne from Georgia Public Broadcasting, who was at the federal courthouse in Brunswick. Hi there.

BENJAMIN PAYNE, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Benjamin, what is the takeaway from today's proceedings?

PAYNE: The main takeaway here is that all three men who were found guilty in state court of murdering Arbery and then later in federal court of hate crimes - all three will serve life sentences in state prison. The reason that matters is that the McMichaels and Bryan wanted to be sent to a federal penitentiary, since it's generally regarded as a safer environment. In fact, Travis McMichaels' attorney said he's received hundreds of death threats already and fears for his life. But the federal judge in this case, Lisa Godbey Wood, denied the requests. She said that Supreme Court precedent dictates that the jurisdiction with the first conviction in that case - in this case, the state of Georgia, basically has dibs.

SUMMERS: It's been more than two years since the cellphone video of the killing, which was taken by Bryan, was leaked. And there have been a number of developments in this trial since then. Remind us, how did we get to these federal sentences today?

PAYNE: Sure. If it wasn't for that short video, there's a very good chance this wouldn't have come to light and the case brought to trial - two trials that is. The first was in state court for murder. At the time, Georgia did not have a hate crime law on the books. So federal prosecutors later stepped in by charging the McMichaels and Bryan with violating Arbery's civil rights as a Black man to use a public street. But one reason this case has drawn so much attention is because of accusations that then-District Attorney Jackie Johnson tried to cover up the killing. Greg McMichael used to be an investigator for Johnson's office. And in fact, a court document revealed that the two spoke over the phone multiple times after Arbery was killed.

SUMMERS: And what about Ahmaud Arbery's family? Did they speak during the sentencing hearings?

PAYNE: They did. There was an emotional moment when Arbery's father, Marcus Arbery, stood before the judge and looked back at Travis McMichael. He told him, quote, "you need to go to state prison and stay there and rot," unquote. McMichael didn't meet his eye contact, instead continuing to look at the judge. Afterwards, Marcus Arbery made similar remarks to reporters outside the courthouse. Here he is referring to Travis McMichael.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARCUS ARBERY: They didn't give him no mercy that day. And you’re asking for mercy, and you’re asking for the court to send you somewhere where you can be laid back when we ain't going to see Ahmaud no more? You ain't give him no chance to be laid back because if you would, you would have let him run out that day.

PAYNE: Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, was also supportive of the judge's decision to send the men to state custody.

SUMMERS: And what about the defendants? Did the judge hear from any of them?

PAYNE: Yes, she heard from Greg McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan. This was the first time we had heard from either of them up to this point. Neither had spoken in court during either the federal or state case. Greg McMichael said that he never wanted any of this to happen and that, quote, "there was no malice in my heart or my son's heart that day," unquote. He apologized to Travis McMichael for putting him in the situation as well as to his wife, but he did not explicitly apologize to the Arbery family. William "Roddie" Bryan did apologize, but the judge was not swayed. Now all three men will serve their life sentences in a Georgia state prison. Little solace for the family of Ahmaud Arbery, who the judge pointed out will be forever 25, while the three men convicted in these crimes will continue to live on.

SUMMERS: That is Benjamin Payne of Georgia Public Broadcasting in Brunswick. Thank you.

PAYNE: Thanks for having me, Juana. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Benjamin Payne
Benjamin Payne is a contributing reporter and floating host at KUNR. He is currently pursuing his master's degree at the University of Nevada, Reno's Reynolds School of Journalism, where he also works as a teaching assistant.