Imagine yourself in a Georgia where justice looks like this:
An FBI special agent, a Black man based in Glynn County, investigates allegations of a hate crime committed against a 25-year-old Black jogger. A Black woman working for the Department of Justice leads the prosecution of that crime. And a jury, led by a Black male foreman, finds the defendants guilty.
That was the face of justice in Brunswick on Tuesday, when Travis and Greg McMichael and their former neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, all white, were convicted on all counts of hunting Ahmaud Arbery down and killing him because of the color of his skin.
The verdict marks an emotional end to the tragedy that began on a Sunday afternoon two years ago in the Satilla Shores neighborhood where Arbery was out for a jog and ended up dead after the three white men, so consumed by hateful stereotypes of Black Americans, tried to detain him under the false assumption that he was a criminal.
The successful prosecution of a federal hate crime is a first for Georgia. Coming on the eve of the second anniversary of Arbery’s killing, it also represents the first time the government has prosecuted any of the recent high-profile killings of Black Americans as a hate crime.
It also represents an extraordinary turnaround in the arc of justice for Coastal Georgia and the majority Black town of Brunswick as residents here and in Glynn County grapple with their own racial history.
For 74 days after Arbery was shot dead, Glynn County police made no arrests. Area district attorneys had leaned into the version of events put forward by Greg McMichael, a retired investigator for the Brunswick-area D.A.’s office and former police officer, that he, his son and their neighbor had acted in self defense against a man they had termed “suspicious” and a possible burglar.
That version of events flew in the face of hard evidence: forensics and autopsy reports that concluded Arbery was unarmed; neighborhood witnesses who told police that Arbery was not a threat nor was he suspected of any criminal activity; and a video taken by Bryan and handed over to the police and area prosecutors that showed armed men in two-ton trucks bearing down on a man in shorts, with nothing in his hands or pockets, running for his life.
On Tuesday in Brunswick, the events of Feb. 23, 2020, were interpreted by the 12-person jury who had been called from the 43 counties of the U.S. Southern District of Georgia. Those eight women and four men who live as far away as Augusta, Statesboro, Dublin and Tybee Island were racially diverse just like the district: 3 Black people, 1 Hispanic and 8 white Georgians.
Through a weeklong trial, they watched the video of Arbery’s death 4 times. They heard a barrage of horrifying social media posts and texts displaying a history of racism among the defendants. And together, they quickly concluded that McMichaels and Bryan were guilty of violating Arbery’s civil rights when they killed him.
Outside the courthouse after hearing the unanimous verdict, Wanda Cooper Jones, Arbery’s mother, and his father Marcus Arbery Sr. expressed the pain and relief of finding justice.
“Ahmaud will continue to rest in peace. But he will now begin to rest in power,” Cooper-Jones said. She added, however: “We as a family will never get victory because Ahmaud is gone forever.”
Emotions were high inside the courtroom when the judge announced a jury had decided the case after less than four hours of deliberations.
As the judge’s clerk announced the unanimous guilty verdict, Arbery’s father bowed his head and shook his fists in quiet celebration. He then pressed his hands together in front of his face as if saying a silent prayer.
Each juror was then asked to affirm their vote. Eleven members spoke a firm “yes,” in reply to that question. Yet Juror 150, the foreman of the jury and the sole Black man on the panel, paused before answering, his voice choked. He wiped tears from his eyes as he also replied in the affirmative.
The defendants, who attended the trial unmasked despite regulations mandating masks in federal buildings, showed no emotion when the verdict was read.
When the judge next called each man to the stand to explain the verdict to each, Greg McMichael let out a deep sigh. His wife Leigh, Travis’ mother, looked down at her lap throughout the reading of the verdict.
After the courtroom emptied, the three-person prosecution team gathered for a group hug.
Tara Lyons, the lead prosecutor who is based in the U.S. Southern District of Georgia, and her co-counsel, prosecutors who work directly at the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in Washington D.C., had worked out a plea agreement with the McMichaels before trial began which would have guaranteed a guilty verdict on the main hate crimes count. That deal, which the Arbery family objected to, was quashed by Judge Lisa Wood, the federal judge based in Brusnwick.
Only 1% of all reported hate crimes make it to trial and the prosecutors had an uphill challenge to reach the conviction in open court. Lyons, who is a Black woman with a teen-age son, told her co-counsel that Tuesday’s verdict was an emotional one for her family. “This is important for my own son,” she told them, her eyes red from crying.
FBI Special Agent Skylar Barnes, the sole Black agent based in the Kingsland field office in Georgia, wrapped his own colleagues in a bear hug. His agents investigated years of racist posts that the defendants made online and in text messages, sentiments in which they called Black people “sub-human,” “savages” and monkeys. “This is a great team victory,” Barnes said amid a sea of hugs and smiles.
All three men were convicted of interference of rights, which is a federal hate crime, and attempted kidnapping. The McMichaels were also found guilty of an additional firearms charge for using and carrying a firearm during a crime of violence. They have two weeks to appeal the conviction, and sentencing for these crimes will occur after that period.
The men were previously convicted of murdering Arbery in a separate state trial in November. They are currently serving life sentences in a state penitentiary for those convictions.
New trial brought new evidence
In the federal case, new evidence emerged about the depth of the McMichaels’ and Bryan’s racial animus — and their sense of imperviousness.
As in the state murder trial, the video of Arbery’s murder was a centerpiece for the federal prosecutors. Greg McMichael’s lawyer confirmed something which had only been rumored before last week: Greg, who worked for law enforcement agencies in Glynn County and Brunswick for decades, was the person who released the tape, thinking that it would exonerate him and his son from any suspicion of criminal misconduct.
That video sparked nationwide outrage after it was released in May 2020, weeks before the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that set off a summer of widespread protests against racial injustice.
In the state trial, jurors did not see events on the tape in the defendants’ favor. Neither did the federal jury.
Before adjourning the proceedings, Judge Wood complimented the lawyers on both sides. She said that the prosecutors had the “difficult task” of proving the racial motivation of hate crimes and did so in a “skillful” manner. The judge noted that while the defense attorneys were appointed to represent their clients, they had acted “zealously” to ensure their right to a fair trial.
“No one need wonder whether they got a fair trial,” Judge Wood said. “They did.”