The three white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery have been found guilty of murder following his 2020 shooting death in south Georgia, which led to a wave of racial justice protest and a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the US.
Travis McMichael, his father, Greg McMichael, and their neighbour William “Roddie” Bryan were each convicted for murdering Arbery, who was unarmed, after pursuing him in February last year and claiming, without evidence, he had been involved in a spate of burglaries in their neighborhood.
On Wednesday the jury returned unanimous decisions, convicting Travis McMichael, who opened fire on Arbery three times with a pump action shotgun, on all nine counts, including charges of malice and felony murder.
Greg McMichael, who carried a magnum revolver but did not open fire, was convicted on eight of the nine counts including felony murder. Bryan, who pursued Arbery in a separate vehicle and said he was not carrying a firearm, was convicted on six of nine counts, also including the charge of felony murder.
The three men each stood before the judge, Timothy Walmsley, who read the verdicts to the courtroom before remanding the defendants into custody. They face life in prison and will be sentenced at a later date with the court deciding whether any are eligible for parole.
None of the men expressed emotions as the verdicts were read. Marcus Arbery, Ahmaud’s father, was heard shouting in triumph in the courtroom as the first guilty verdict was read, while Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, began weeping as the last guilty verdict was heard.
Speaking outside the courthouse in late autumn sun, Cooper-Jones addressed reporters and supporters.
“It’s been a long fight, it’s been a hard fight, but God is good,” she said. “To tell you the truth I never saw this day in 2020, I did not think this day would come … Thank you, thank you for those who marched. Thank you to those who prayed.”
She continued: “He [Ahmaud Arbery] will now rest in peace.”
Marcus Arbery said the verdict showed: “We conquered that lynch mob. We got that lynch mob.”
The murder, in the neighbourhood of Satilla Shores, was initially overlooked by most national media outlets until video of shooting, filmed by Bryan, was leaked and made public. The case was assigned to three separate local district attorneys, one of whom recommended not bringing charges against the men, before state investigators intervened after release of the footage. Charges were brought almost three months after Arbery was murdered.
Shortly after the verdict on Wednesday, Joe Biden described the murder as “a devastating reminder of how far we have to go in the fight for racial justice in this country”.
In a written statement he added: “While the guilty verdicts reflect our justice system doing its job, that alone is not enough. Instead, we must recommit ourselves to building a future of unity and shared strength, where no one fears violence because of the color of their skin.”
The verdict was announced after two weeks of testimony and evidence in the closely watched trial, during which Travis McMichael was the only one of the three men to take the stand. The McMichaels had claimed the shooting was an act of self-defense and that they had attempted to enact a citizen’s arrest, an argument disputed by the prosecution, who said they had no probable cause to detain Arbery, a frequent jogger in the neighborhood.
In the wake of widespread protest after video of the murder emerged, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, gutted the state’s citizen’s arrest law, which was enacted during the era of slavery, and enacted a new hate crimes law. But the defendants were still able to argue under the old law at trial.
Although the case became an emblem of racial injustice and bias in the US criminal justice system to many, prosecutors ultimately left the issue of racism outside the case. In closing arguments, lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski made just a passing reference to the allegations of racial bias, stating: “they [the defendants] made their decision to attack Ahmaud Arbery in their driveways, because he was a Black man running down the street.”
Speaking after the conclusion of the case on Wednesday, Dunikoski told reporters the verdict was “based on the facts and based on the evidence”.
She added: “When you present the truth to people and they can see it, they will do the right thing. And that’s what this jury did today in getting justice for Ahmaud Arbery.
Allegations of racism and intentional bias surrounded the court case throughout.
Lawyers acting for the Arbery family had expressed significant concerns at the trial’s outset after a jury of 11 white members and one Black member was selected. Defense lawyers had struck all but one potential Black juror from the jury pool, leading judge Walmsley to declare there appeared to be “intentional discrimination” during the selection process.
Defense attorneys repeatedly requested a mistrial due to activists congregating outside the Glynn county courthouse and also requested that the judge limit the number of Black pastors in the public viewing space, claiming the pastors were intimidating to the jury.
In closing, lawyers for each defendant also sought to attack Arbery himself, claiming his decisions had ultimately led to the fatal shooting.
Laura Hogue, representing Greg McMichael, described Arbery during closing arguments as a “recurring night-time intruder” whose presence was “frightening and unsettling”, prompting instant criticism from Arbery’s parents, who said the defense had deliberately mischaracterized their son.
Reports indicated both McMichaels planned to appeal Wednesday’s verdict.
In a statement on Wednesday, the civil rights attorney Ben Crump, representing Marcus Arbery, said: “After nearly two years of pain, suffering and wondering if Ahmaud’s killers would be held to account, the Arbery family finally has some justice. Nothing will bring back Ahmaud, but his family will have some peace knowing the men who killed him will remain behind bars and can never inflict their brand of evil on another innocent soul.”
He added: “While today is not one for celebration, it is one for reflection.”
The guilty verdicts do not spell the end of the legal process for the three men, who all face separate federal hate crimes charges in a case brought by the US justice department that is due to go to trial in February 2022.