Travis McMichael, his father, Greg McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were all convicted of felony murder in the shooting of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man — meaning they committed felonies that caused his death. They were also found guilty of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and attempt to falsely imprison. But Bryan and the elder McMichael were acquitted of malice murder, which involves intent to kill. Each defendant now faces a potential penalty of life in prison without parole.
Ruby Arbery, Ahmaud’s aunt, said she “felt something lift off her” as the judge read the verdicts.
“All the pain, all the hurt, it lifted because I knew we got justice,” said Arbery, 53. “We finally got justice for my nephew.”
Dozens of Brunswick residents rushed to the courthouse to celebrate. Many were Black fathers who brought their sons.
“We feel like justice was served and it was a relief to know the system actually worked in this case and they didn’t find a loophole,” said Shawn Golden, 48, who was with his 10-year-old son.
“Bringing him face-to-face to what is going on around us, this is special and something he will remember for the rest of his life,” Golden said.
A leaked video of the Feb. 23, 2020, shooting thrust the case into the national spotlight, just weeks before the murder of George Floyd by a White police officer in Minneapolis ignited mass protests against police brutality and racism. Arbery’s killing became a rallying point for the Black Lives Matter movement, as protesters said Arbery was racially profiled while jogging and accused authorities of brushing his death aside.
That national conversation hung over the trial that stretched more than five weeks as lawyers fought over the courtroom presence of Black civil rights leaders and a nearly all-White jury, with the exception of one Black man.
The trial also took place in the shadow of the highly publicized murder trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. The White teenager was acquitted last week after his defense successfully argued that he shot three people — killing two — in self-defense, after driving to Kenosha, Wis., to help protect businesses and property when protests over the police shooting of a Black man turned violent.
Prosecutors portrayed the Georgia defendants as dangerous vigilantes who cornered an unarmed man with their pickup trucks in suburban Satilla Shores. “This isn’t the Wild West,” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski told jurors, saying that the accused jumped to assumptions about a “Black man running down the street.”
Lawyers for the defendants said the men were attempting a legitimate citizen’s arrest that turned deadly, and argued race played no role. The younger McMichael testified last week that he felt compelled to shoot in self-defense when Arbery ran at him, struck him and grabbed his shotgun.
Arbery died because he “chose to fight,” defense lawyer Laura Hogue said in her closing, which the prosecution called “offensive.”
The uproar over Arbery’s killing eventually spurred changes to Georgia law and a criminal indictment for the first prosecutor to touch the case. The verdict drew immediate reactions Wednesday from lawmakers. Rep. Bobby L. Rush (D-Va.) compared Arbery’s killing to the brutal murder of Emmett Till, a teenager who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 by White men.
“Ahmaud Arbery’s murder was a modern-day lynching,” he tweeted. “Today’s verdict is justice.”
The Congressional Black Caucus released a statement supporting the ruling but noting that the entire incident was “devastating.”
“Justice has been served,” the caucus said in a statement. “However, there is still much to work to be done.”
The indicted prosecutor, former Brunswick Judicial Circuit district attorney Jackie Johnson, quickly recused herself because Greg McMichael, a former police officer, had recently retired from her office. Johnson, who was voted out of office last fall, was indicted in September on allegations she showed favor to Greg McMichael and obstructed police by telling them not to arrest Travis McMichael.
A second prosecutor, George Barnhill, had advised police against arrests a day after the shooting. Barnhill, who remains in office, defended the McMichaels and Bryan even as he eventually recused himself as well, asserting that Arbery was caught “burglarizing” and had attacked Travis McMichael.
Following the May 2020 leak of the video — which had been in police possession for months — and the public outcry, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case and announced arrests.
The McMichaels said they recognized Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020, as the man who entered an under-construction home several times in the months leading up the shooting, often in the evening — incidents captured on surveillance camera. Travis McMichael said he had encountered Arbery at the property earlier that month and reported the incident to police.
Video footage did not show Arbery taking anything from the property, and police told that to the McMichaels. No stolen items were found on his body. But Travis McMichael testified that he suspected Arbery of theft after hearing that things went missing from the property. Arbery had just left the under-construction home on Feb. 23 when Greg McMichael said he spotted the 25-year-old running past his house.
Bryan’s stated reason for joining the McMichaels as they chased Arbery past his home was less clear. He was not aware of the surveillance video, according to testimony, and Travis McMichael told the jury he did not know Bryan as he pushed back against allegations of a concerted effort.
“I figured he had done something wrong,” Bryan told authorities last year, saying he sought to photograph Arbery. “I didn’t know for sure.” Bryan’s lawyer has maintained he was only a witness to the shooting, noting that Bryan did not bring his rifle along.
Georgia’s citizen’s arrest statute at the time required “immediate knowledge” of a crime or “reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion” of someone fleeing a felony offense. The law was significantly narrowed in the wake of Arbery’s death, a testament to the bipartisan backlash the killing inspired. Arbery’s case also led Georgia legislators to pass a hate crimes law.
Supporters of Arbery’s family expressed confidence throughout the trial that the jury would convict, and Arbery’s mother said last week that Bryan’s lawyer had sought a last-minute plea deal that prosecutors turned down. Bryan’s lawyer denied doing so. Throughout the trial, defense attorneys seemed to stake out potential arguments for appeal as they said gallery outbursts, courtroom guests and outside demonstrators had compromised their clients’ right to a fair trial, potentially influencing jurors.
“This is what a public lynching looks like in the 21st century,” defense attorney Kevin Gough said last week in calling for a mistrial, after hundreds of people rallied outside the Glynn County courthouse. They had gathered largely in rebuke of Gough’s objections to Black pastors and “high-profile members of the African American community” sitting in the courtroom.
Bryan’s cellphone video is central to the case. It shows Arbery running down the road ahead of Bryan, toward the McMichaels and their parked truck. Arbery passes the vehicle and then turns and runs toward Travis McMichael, who is holding a shotgun.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski last week zeroed in on the moment when Travis McMichael trained his gun on Arbery. At that point, the defendant confirmed, Arbery had not made any verbal threats or shown any weapon. He did not say a word the whole encounter, Travis McMichael testified.
“All he’s done is run away from you. … And you pulled out a shotgun and pointed it at him,” the prosecutor said.
Travis McMichael said he pointed the gun to “deter” Arbery from continuing toward him, citing his Coast Guard training on use of force and de-escalation tactics.
In the video, the truck obscures the men’s movements as the first shot fires. “I knew that he was on me,” Travis McMichael told the jury. “I knew that I was losing this.”
Experts from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation bolstered McMichael’s account when they testified that Arbery was shot at “contact or near-contact” range. But Dunikoski noted that Travis McMichael told police shortly after the shooting that he was not sure whether Arbery actually grabbed the weapon.
The defendant also did not tell police about Arbery allegedly “attacking” Bryan’s truck, she said, or taking off running when told the police were coming. Those were both key moments that Travis McMichael described for the jury as raising his alarms.
“Use your common sense … do you think all this was completely made up for trial?” Dunikoski told jurors.
Rittenhouse’s acquittal only added to the weight many placed on Arbery’s case. Prosecutors had called Rittenhouse a vigilante with an AR-15-style rifle who instigated the situation.
Prosecutors in Arbery’s case have argued that if anyone had a right to self-defense, it was Arbery — chased for five minutes and threatened by strangers. Some warned that acquittal for the man who shot Arbery would harden the view that there are two justice systems in America.
The nearly all-White jury empaneled raised concerns before testimony even began. Already under the microscope, the jury for Arbery’s killing drew even more scrutiny this month as the defense struck 11 out of 12 Black jurors from the final group the judge found qualified to serve. Judge Timothy Walmsley said there “appears to be intentional discrimination, agreeing the prosecution had made a “prima facie” case that the exclusions were racially biased. But he said defense lawyers were able to justify their choices with race-neutral reasons.
Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson, who joined Arbery’s family in court, expressed concern about the jurors, but he also looked beyond the trial as he addressed a crowd in Brunswick earlier this month.
“He is bigger than he ever was in life,” Jackson said of Arbery. “He is all over the world now.”
Lawyers for Arbery’s family said Wednesday that the jury’s verdict will reverberate around the country.
“This is a very consequential day, not just for Ahmaud Arbery but for families all over America,” said Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights lawyer who represents the family. “We have to show that America must be better than what we saw in that video.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton, who attended court with Arbery’s family, criticized the trial itself — saying it featured the “most racist language” he had ever witnessed in a court case and that he prays the jury “will show this is the 21st year of the 21st century and we are not back in the days of Jim Crow.”
This is a developing story.
Eugene Robinson contributed to this report.