Thursday, August 4

Good morning

Welcome to the sophomore edition of Undercurrent, where we share stories that go beyond press releases and political talking points for public safety in Coastal Georgia.

Greg McMichael, right, waits for the sentencing of he and his son Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan in the Glynn County Courthouse, Friday, Jan. 7, 2022, in Brunswick, Ga. The three were found guilty in the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, Pool)

Final sentencing

In a new sentencing document, Greg McMichael, who was convicted along with his son and neighbor in the inflammatory killing of Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020, has asked a judge for leniency.

McMichael, 66, and his son Travis, 36, and William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, were convicted of both state murder charges and federal hate crimes. They received life sentences in Glynn County Superior Court and are now scheduled to be sentenced on Aug. 8 at the U.S. federal courthouse in Brunswick.

The elder McMichael, who helped hunt down and kill Arbery, a Black jogger, is asking the judge for a 20-year sentence and to spend his incarceration in federal prison instead of state prison. His lawyer listed several reasons as to why:

  • His 31-year career in law enforcement, in which “he never received any complaints in his personnel file for racism, harassment, or police brutality,” his lawyer wrote.
  • Anecdotes where McMichael saved a drowning Black shipmate while serving in the Navy and how McMichael “rented property to persons of color, undermining any theory that Greg McMichael harbored antipathy towards African Americans,” the memo said.
  • His depression and anxiety in addition to history of stroke and heart disease.
  • How Georgia state prison conditions are currently under federal investigation. McMichael’s attorney requested he be held in federal custody “until the current investigation into the conditions of Georgia state prisons is completed and assurances can be provided regarding Greg McMichael’s safety and care.”
  • How Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd, was sentenced to 20 years. His conduct was worse than McMichael’s, his lawyer wrote, and his sentence should at least match Chauvin’s.

Whether U.S. District Judge Lisa G. Wood will go for this is doubtful — she already denied an attempt by the McMichaels to plead guilty before trial in order to secure federal prison over state prison.

The schedule for the Aug. 8 sentencing is as follows: 10 a.m. for Travis McMichael, 1 p.m. for Greg McMichael, and 3 p.m. for William Bryan, according to the court docket.

For members of the public who want to listen in to the hearings, the district court asks they dial 1-888-684-8852, enter the call access code 2296092 and then enter the security code 1234. 

New Interim Savannah Police Chief Lenny Gunther at a news conference with Mayor Van Johnson on Tuesday, August 2, 2022.

Step in the right direction

The city of Savannah made moves to recruit new Savannah police officers by increasing starting pay and beginning incentive programs to keep them around.

At a news conference Tuesday, Savannah Mayor Van Johnson said the new starting salary for a Savannah police officer is $50,000, up from $44,000, “putting Savannah’s public safety departments in the top 5 percent in pay in Georgia,” he said.

The increase, which also includes Savannah firefighters, comes with a bonus for officers who refer new hires, a $5,000 new hire signing bonus, a 2-year $5,000 retention incentive, and a lateral entry program to compensate officers for their policing experience with a lateral sign-on bonus to boot.

This is important as the Savannah Police Department lost scores of officers to other departments or retirements under former Chief Roy Minter, who officially resigned last weekend. Many cited low department morale under his leadership and others cited not enough pay with high working hours, according to a reported staff survey.

Letter from Coastal State Prison Warden Brooks L. Benton expressing concerns about Ernest Ferguson, current Savannah Police Officer, and his repeated use of force on inmates when he was a prison guard.

‘Causes for concern’?

Just as essential as recruiting officers is vetting them.

Documents obtained by The Current this week found that the warden of Coastal State Prison, where Savannah officer Ernest Ferguson who is mired in controversy previously worked, wrote a letter expressing “concern” about Ferguson’s repeated use of force on inmates.

It flies in the face of what the Savannah Police Department told The Current in a previous story on Ferguson, that there were “no documented issues or causes for concern” when he was hired after working as a prison guard. It’s been revealed Ferguson was involved in numerous use of force incidents prior to working for Savannah.

The letter by the warden and others like it were in Ferguson’s personnel file. It’s a standard practice for agencies hiring new officers to look at personnel files from prior jobs to check on disciplinary issues.

As of Wednesday night, the police department still has not answered questions about whether or not they looked at his file and read the disciplinary actions about Ferguson prior to hiring him.

Ferguson was hired in March 2021, at a time when the department was hurting for officers.

Ferguson is on administrative leave while state authorities examine his shooting of Saudi Arai Lee, 31, in Carver Village on June 24, which left Lee dead and the Carver Village community devastated.

The Current on the air

Check out GPB’s “Political Rewind” on Friday — The Current’s Editor in Chief Margaret Coker will be a panelist for the statewide political discussion. It airs live at 9 a.m. and again, recorded, at 2 p.m. on or at WSAVH 91.1 FM.

Conrad Aiken

One more thing

Tomorrow marks the birthday of famous Savannahian and Georgia poet laureate, Conrad Aiken.

Born on August 5, 1889 in a Savannah home on E. Oglethorpe Street, he was the eldest of three sons of a physician. At age 11, he suffered a family tragedy resulting in both his parents’ deaths, an event that left a permanent mark on him and his work, according to the Poetry Foundation.

Aiken went on to win many awards for his poetry, including the Pulitzer Prize in 1930 and National Book Award in 1954, while working in relative obscurity — he never became very popular, a New York Times obituary reported. Aiken made no efforts to popularize himself, a critic at the time said.

The Times wrote while he had some bitterness about it, his work often expressed a wry, self-effacing quality. I’ll leave you with the opening lines of a work he composed at age 80, “Obituary in Bitcherel”:

In eighteen hundred and eighty nine

Conrad Aiken crossed the line

in nineteen hundred and question-mark

Aiken’s windowpane was dark.

But in between o in between

the things he did the things he’d seen!

Have a tip or story idea on public safety in Coastal Georgia? Email me at

Greg McMichael seeks federal prison over Georgia prison ahead of Arbery hate crime sentencing

Greg McMichael, convicted in the murder of jogger Ahmaud Arbery and for hate crimes, is asking for a federal prison stay over Georgia state prison ahead of a Brunswick sentencing hearing.

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Warden documented concerns about guard’s use of force before joining Savannah police

Coastal State Prison warden wrote his concerns about officer Ernest Ferguson’s use of force violations in a letter before Ferguson was hired by the Savannah Police Department. The new records contradict the police which said there were no “documented issues” prior to hiring.

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Jurors answer hate-crimes question with guilty verdict

The arc of racial history in Brunswick, Georgia, moved toward justice with unanimous conviction of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder as a hate crime.

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Political battle looms over crime, policing in Savannah

The street protest following Savannah Police’s 5th officer-involved shooting seemed small, but the repercussions of Saudi Arai Lee’s death last month signal a larger political battle ahead. The recent deadly shooting in Carver Village and questions from it highlight issues for 2023 city elections.

Continue reading…

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Jake Shore

Jake Shore covers public safety and the courts system in Savannah and Coastal Georgia. He is also a Report for America corps member. Prior to joining The Current, Jake worked as a senior writer for the...