Men who killed Arbery to also face federal hate crime charges. Here’s what to expect

Three white men were found guilty Wednesday on multiple counts of murder and other charges in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was Black. Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted on charges of felony murder for chasing and killing Arbery in Georgia last year. The verdict was closely watched around the country. Amna Nawaz reports.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Three white men were found guilty today on multiple counts of murder and other charges in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was Black.

    Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan were convicted on charges of felony murder for chasing and killing Arbery in Georgia last year. Bryan and Greg McMichael were acquitted of malice murder, which is connected with intent to kill.

    The verdict was closely watched around the country.

  • Judge Timothy Walmsley, Eastern Circuit Superior Court:

    The state of Georgia vs. Travis McMichael, case number CR000433.

    Jury verdict form, count one, malice murder. "We the jury find the defendant Travis McMichael guilty."

    (CHEERING)

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The three could face life sentences in prison. Before video of the shooting was leaked, it was more than two months before anyone was arrested.

    Ahmaud Arbery, who was never armed, was shot in February 2020 while he was jogging in Brunswick, Georgia. The McMichaels pursued him in a pickup truck, and Bryan joined them moments later. They claimed Arbery resembled a suspect in a series of break-ins. After a struggle, three shots were fired, two of which struck Arbery in the chest.

    Moments after the verdict was read today, a crowd erupted in cheers outside the Glynn County courthouse.

    And Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, spoke of her son.

    Wanda Cooper-Jones, Mother of Ahmaud Arbery: I just want to tell everybody thank you, thank you for those who marched, those who prayed, most of all the ones who prayed.

  • Man:

    Yes, lord.

  • Wanda Cooper-Jones:

    Thank you, God. Thank you.

    And now, Quez, which I — you know him as Ahmaud. I know him as Quez. he will now rest in peace.

  • Woman:

    Amen!

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Arbery's murder and this trial proved to be another key moment in the ongoing conversation around racial justice and the legal system.

    Paul Butler is professor at Georgetown Law and a former federal prosecutor. He joins me now.

    Paul Butler, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks for being with us.

    So, this is obviously an incredibly high profile case. Even President Biden issued a statement in response to the verdict.

    But, Paul Butler, generally speaking, how did you react? What went through your mind when you heard the verdict today?

    Paul Butler, Professor, George Washington University School of Law: Amna, in her closing statement to the jury, the prosecutor had this refrain. It was the 911 call that one of the defendants made, when he said his emergency was black man running.

    And those words, there's an American history of racial violence and white supremacy and unequal justice under the law. And you might say that, today, these jurors disrupted that history. Criminal trials are not designed to be instruments of social change. They're about bringing individual wrongdoers to justice.

    But, sometimes, verdicts reveal something about social progress. Today, we learned that, in Glynn County, Georgia, in a trial in which three white men hunted down and killed a black man, those men were convicted by a virtually all-white jury. In this country, that counts as progress.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Paul Butler, we don't always hear from defendants in cases, but Travis McMichael took the stand in his defense.

    In hindsight — and that was seen to be a key moment in the trial. In hindsight, what do you make of that decision?

  • Paul Butler:

    Defendants in murder cases typically don't take the stand.

    But when self-defense is an issue, jurors like to hear from the accused person. They want to know his story. Travis McMichael didn't have a story to rebut the compelling evidence that he didn't act in self-defense, that he started the fight when he chased Mr. Arbery and then shot him, that there was no legal justification.

    So, whether he took the stand or not, I don't think made a difference, based on the prosecution's evidence.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Self-defense was central to this case.

    It was also central to another high-profile case that we had a verdict in recently. That was Kyle Rittenhouse., of course, in Wisconsin. Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges. McMichael and — both McMichaels and Mr. Bryan were not.

    And I have to mention, after the Rittenhouse verdict, you wrote this in an op-ed. You said: "He is now the poster child for reactionary white men who seek to take the law in their own hands."

    Does today's verdict change that?

  • Paul Butler:

    Every case has different facts.

    Mr. Rittenhouse persuaded a jury that each of the three men he shot posed a deadly threat to him. He said one man tried to grab his gun, another attacked him with a skateboard, and the third aimed a gun at him.

    In contrast, in the Georgia case, Mr. Arbery was unarmed. So it was harder for those defendants to say that they thought he was going to kill him. Another difference is that Mr. Rittenhouse had a $2 million legal defense fund that allowed his lawyers to stage two practice trials, one where Mr. Rittenhouse took the stand and another where he didn't take the stand.

    So, as far as we know, the defendants in Georgia didn't have those resources.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Paul, if there was no video in this case, do you think we'd have the verdict that we saw today?

  • Paul Butler:

    If there was no video on this case, Amna, I don't think we would have had a prosecution.

    Remember, no charges were wrought for months after these defendants killed Mr. Arbery. On the day that they killed him, they were allowed to go home. It wasn't until the video of Mr. Arbery's tragic death went viral that the police and prosecutors acted interested in this case at all.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    All three men will now go to federal court in a matter of weeks to face federal hate crime charges as well.

    Based on what you have seen in the past, Paul, what do you expect to happen there?

  • Paul Butler:

    In the federal case, the defendants are charged with hate crimes, which means, if they are convicted, their sentence will be enhanced based on racial animus that the jury finds.

    In the state case, the prosecution rarely brought up race. It had evidence of racism by the defendants, but it didn't use that evidence. The most disturbing was that one defendant said that Travis McMichael called Mr. Arbery the N-word work after he shot him.

    We can be certain that the prosecution will try to get that evidence in, in the federal case. I think, in the state case, the prosecutors were concerned that — I think, in the state case, the prosecutors were concerned about looking like they were injecting race in the case, especially before this virtually all-white jury.

    They gambled in the state case that they could win their case without this evidence. And they were right. I will be interested to see if the defense changes its tactics with regard to race in the federal case.

    In the state case, they consistently evoked race, including in problematic ways. One lawyer complained that there weren't enough white men over 40 in the jury pool. That same lawyer tried to get black ministers excluded from the courtroom. And another defense attorney talked about Mr. Arbery's long dirty toenails.

    But this virtually all-white jury did not let them get away with those racist tropes. And that's a sign of progress.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Paul Butler, former federal prosecutor, now professor at Georgetown law.

    Paul, good to see you. Thanks for your time.

  • Paul Butler:

    Always a pleasure, Amna.

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