« Some more highlights from among many great new Inquest pieces | Main | "Count the Code: Quantifying Federalization of Criminal Statutes" »

January 7, 2022

Two of three defendants convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery given LWOP, other gets life with parole

This lengthy USA Today piece reports on a high-profile state sentencing that took place down in Georgia.  Here are the basics:

A judge sentenced three men to life in prison Friday for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery and denied the possibility of parole for two of the defendants, father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael.  However Judge Timothy Walmsley granted the possibility of parole to William "Roddie" Bryan, the McMichaels' neighbor who joined the chase and took video of the killing. Bryan must serve at least 30 years in prison before becoming eligible....

Before the sentencing was read, Walmsley held a minute of silence to represent a fraction of the time Arbery was running before he was shot.  He called the image of Travis McMichael aiming a shotgun at Arbery "absolutely chilling." The judge also quoted the defendant's statements, saying their words gave context to the video and guided his sentencing decision. The minimum penalty required by law for the murder charges is a life sentence; Walmsley had to determine whether each defendant would have the possibility of parole....

The three men chased the Arbery, 25, in trucks while he was running through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020.  The men weren't arrested for more than two months when Bryan's video was released, which fueled nationwide racial justice protests and later became a key piece of evidence in the murder trial. The nearly-all white jury deliberated for almost two days before finding the men guilty.  They were taken to Glynn County jail after the verdict was reached and are expected to appeal....

Walmsley said that while sentencing may not provide closure for the family, the community or the nation, it would hold the defendants accountable for their actions.  Arbery's parents, Marcus Arbery and Wanda Cooper-Jones, cried as the sentence was read.  Earlier Friday, the family asked for all three defendants to get the harshest penalty as they shared memories of him and the toll his death has taken....

The defendants all had the opportunity to speak before sentencing, a time when judges typically expect to hear remorse, but did not....

After being sentenced on the state charges, the three men will face a federal hate crimes trial for killing Arbery.  The three men are white; Arbery was Black. All three are charged with interfering with Arbery's rights and attempted kidnapping.  The McMichaels are also charged with using, carrying and brandishing — and in Travis McMichael’s case, firing — a gun during and in relation to a crime of violence.

The federal charges are punishable by death, life in prison or a shorter prison sentence and a fine, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.  There is no parole in the federal system. Attorneys will begin selecting a jury from a wide pool of 43 counties across the Southern District of Georgia for that trial Feb. 7. The proceedings are set to take place in Glynn County.

The McMichaels and Bryan are also facing a civil lawsuit filed by Arbery’s mother. The wrongful death suit seeks $1 million in damages and also names former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson, former Glynn County Police Chief John Powell, Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George Barnhill, and several Glynn County police officers.

January 7, 2022 at 04:56 PM | Permalink


I hope the many on the criminal justice "reform" side learn something from this case (other than that white defendants should get waxed). Specifically, what I hope they'll learn is that life sentences are not categorically unacceptable. They're harsh, you bet, and should be used seldom, but seldom is not never.

Here as elsewhere in the criminal justice system, the best way to avoid a harsh sentence is not to wail about the big, bad system but -- ready now? -- to abstain from the behavior that provokes it. If on the other hand you want to pretend you're the police and make a "citizen's arrest" on little to no evidence, and then wind up killing your prospective "arrestee," have the grace to accept what you've earned.

Of course defense counsel here are going to do no such thing, acceptance and grace being absent from the playbook.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 7, 2022 10:49:08 PM

The main thing is that the younger McMichael got LWOP. So did the elder McMichael, but parole eligibility is largely a theoretical issue or him as 30 years from now he will be 96.

I think parole eligibility for Bryan is fine. I wish they wouldn't bother with the Federal charges. Georgia handled this just fine.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Jan 7, 2022 11:08:28 PM

The Feds should just leave this alone. They have a lot in their plate—e.g., the Ashley Biden whodunnit.

The “wise [sic] Latina” didn’t cover herself with glory yesterday. Good grief—who knew that 100,000 kids were hospitalized or that Covid-19 is blood borne. The fact that she showed up unprepared for argument shows a completely unjustified arrogance. She should be hooted off the bench.

Posted by: Federalist | Jan 8, 2022 8:54:24 AM

Federalist, you are (yet again) wrong on the facts. Justice Sotomayor referred to blood-borne viruses because she was talking about OSHA's 1991 blood-borne pathogen rule for hepatitis B and C, which was discussed throughout the argument.

Posted by: Curious | Jan 8, 2022 9:27:12 AM

Not seeing a distinctly federal interest not already vindicated by the quite substantial state sentences.

If, during the mandate case argument, Justice Sotomayor was trying to make the point that judges lack the expertise to make decisions about how to fight a virus, she did a subtle but wonderfully effective job. On the other hand, it might be time to admit that NO ONE in the government (or elsewhere) knows how to stop its spread, so one must wonder whether more aggressive anti-spread maneuvers are worth the costs they impose.

Posted by: Bill Otis | Jan 8, 2022 9:35:44 AM

Bill, all the justices did a good job of showing why we should leave science policy to scientists, not lawyers. For example, Justice Gorsuch asked why OSHA was mandating vax-or-test for COVID but not influenza, failing to recognize that COVID kills >10x people per year.

Posted by: Curious | Jan 8, 2022 10:10:54 AM

Curious—I’m rarely wrong, and how do you explain away the 100,000 kids stat? She looks colossally ignorant.

Posted by: Federalist | Jan 8, 2022 1:37:17 PM

Gorsuch was asking about line drawing.

Posted by: Federalist | Jan 8, 2022 1:48:53 PM

Federalist, I can't explain the 100,000 kids stat, which appears inaccurate. But if saying that makes her "colossally ignorant," then I wouldn't know what to call Justice Gorsuch, who wasn't just asking about line-drawing but actually said "Flu kills—I believe—hundreds of thousands of people every year." Of course, he's way off - the actual annual death rate for flu is between 12,000 and 52,000.

Jonathan Adler covers this issue well in his new Volokh post which I suggest you check out: https://reason.com/volokh/2022/01/08/sloppy-arguments-over-covid-mandates-at-scotus/.

There's no question the justices are bad scientists, but this lack of expertise transcends political ideology. Singling out Justice Sotomayor misses the bigger problem with judicial competence in this area.

Posted by: Curious | Jan 8, 2022 2:08:07 PM

There was some word that there was an activist jurist who bullied jurors into a verdict. Any truth to it? Also, if self defense was not allowed how could the trial be fair?

This is a travesty of justice. Maybe the worst thing to happen in American history.

Posted by: restless94110 | Jan 8, 2022 2:23:03 PM

They were allowed to make their self defense claim, and they did. But the jury didn't buy it.

The law says you don't get to claim self defense when you started the whole confrontation. The prosecution argued, in my view convincingly, that that's what happened. Bryan talked about trapping Arbery "like a rat" between two trucks. When you "trap" someone, it's you who started the confrontation. Not them.

Moral of the story, if one person (or group of people) is trying to cause a confrontation, and the other is trying to avoid it, the person (or group) trying to avoid the confrontation is in a much better legal position.

This case, like the Rittenhouse case, hinged on whether or not the self defense claim made sense. In that case, the jury said it did. This time, they said it didn't. I think both juries got it right.

Posted by: William C Jockusch | Jan 8, 2022 9:07:55 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB