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Arbery’s killers receive federal sentences but stay in state prison

A federal judge Monday issued Travis and Gregory McMichael federal life sentences; they were previously sentenced to life for their murder convictions in state court. The McMichaels are two of the three white Georgia men who were convicted of committing federal hate crimes for the pursuit and slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, in February 2020. The third man, William Bryan, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.Associated Press

ATLANTA — A federal judge meted out a second layer of life sentences Monday to Travis and Gregory McMichael, two of the three white Georgia men convicted of committing federal hate crimes for the pursuit and slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, in February 2020. The third man, William Bryan, was sentenced to 35 years in prison.

In an equally dramatic move, US District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected requests by the men — all of whom were previously sentenced to life for their murder convictions in state court — that they be allowed to serve part of their concurrent life sentences in federal prison.

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The attorney for Travis McMichael said that he had received hundreds of death threats, and argued in court that her client would be safer in the federal system and less likely to be subject to “vigilante justice.”

But a number of Arbery’s family members came to court and argued that the men convicted in the killing should receive no special treatment. Marcus Arbery, Arbery’s father, said that he wanted the men to “rot in the state prison.”

“These three devils have broken my heart into pieces,” he said.

The sentencing hearings were held in a Brunswick, Georgia, courtroom for the men, whose actions, caught on video, horrified the nation and the world. Prosecutors contended that the killing of Arbery was the men’s own version of vigilante justice, motivated by racism.

Travis McMichael shot Arbery at close range with a shotgun after the pursuit, which unfolded over several minutes on a Sunday afternoon in Satilla Shores, a suburban neighborhood just outside of Brunswick. The three white men chased Arbery in a pair of pickup trucks as he tried desperately to run away from them.

Moments earlier, Arbery was inside a house under construction, and the men who killed him said they suspected him of committing a string of property crimes. Arbery’s relatives said that Arbery, an avid runner, had been out for a Sunday jog. In court proceedings, all three defendants were shown to have harbored racial animus toward Black people.

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Travis McMichael declined to speak in court Monday. His father spoke briefly, addressing the Arbery family directly: “The loss that you’ve endured is beyond description,” he said. “I’m sure that my words mean very little to you. But I want to assure you, I never wanted any of this to happen.”

Wood said she had taken into consideration the fact that the two men had no prior criminal records and that both had served in the armed forces.

But at one point, she referred to the February 2022 federal trial she presided over, in which all three men were found guilty of a federal hate crime.

It had been a fair trial, she said — “the kind of trial that Ahmaud Arbery did not receive before he was shot and killed.”

In addition to the life sentences for the hate-crime charge of “interference with rights,” the judge sentenced both men to 20 years, to be served concurrently, for attempted kidnapping. The younger McMichael was given another 10 years, to be served consecutively, for a federal weapons charge, and his father was given seven extra years for a similar charge.

Those sentences are likely to have little practical effect because both men are already serving life sentences without the possibility of parole for their state murder convictions. The more pressing matter for the McMichaels was the question of where they would serve their time.

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The judge sentenced the third man, Bryan, to 35 years in prison. She distinguished between his actions and those of the McMichaels, noting that he had not brought a gun to the chase. Still, she told him, “You will not be surprised, I don’t think, that you have earned a long sentence.”

In a court filing last week, Travis McMichael’s attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, described the threats he had received.

“Hundreds of threats,” she wrote. “He quit counting in January 2022, at around 800 threats. The threats have included statements that his image has been circulated through the state prison system on contraband cellphones, that people are ‘waiting for him,’ that he should not go into the yard, and that correctional officers have promised a willingness (whether for pay or for free) to keep certain doors unlocked and backs turned to allow inmates to harm him.”

Copeland noted that the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is conducting an investigation into dangerous conditions in the Georgia prison system, made worse by staffing shortages, training issues, and other factors. Copeland cited an analysis from Georgia Public Broadcasting that found that 53 homicides had occurred in Georgia state prisons in 2020 and 2021.

Greg McMichael’s attorney, A.J. Balbo, noted, among other things, that his client suffered from heart problems and bouts of depression and anxiety.

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The McMichaels and Bryan are currently being held in a local jail, the Glynn County Detention Center, where they have been since they were arrested in May 2020.

In her court filing, Copeland said that Travis McMichael would “ideally” be housed in federal prison “through the term of his concurrent federal sentence” but “at the very least” should be housed in a federal prison through the appeals process in his federal case.

In court, however, Copeland asked only for her client to be housed in the federal system through the appeals process, allowing what she called a “cooling off” period that might help ensure his safety. Balbo asked that his client be kept in federal custody until the conclusion of the Justice Department’s investigation into the Georgia state prison system.

Copeland said she recognized the “rich irony” of being concerned about her client being a victim of vigilante justice. But she said that if he is sent to a state prison, he “effectively faces a backdoor death penalty.”

Prosecutors argued against allowing Travis McMichael to go to federal prison first, noting that convicts normally start serving their time in the prison system of the government entity that prosecuted them first — in this case, the state of Georgia.

In the end, Wood said she had no plans to upend that tradition, saying in the case of Travis McMichael that she had “neither the authority nor the inclination” to send him to federal prison first.

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