Ahmaud Arbery’s mother relieved by killers' guilty verdict -- but expresses anger at DOJ
Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, at Pendleton King Park in Augusta, Georgia, in July 2020. - Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS

Soon after a federal jury returned guilty verdicts Tuesday in the hate crimes trial of three white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery, his mother vented against the federal prosecutors who offered a plea deal as much as she expressed relief about the trial’s outcome.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, thanked supporters around Brunswick and across the country for backing the family’s fight for justice after the convictions of Greg and Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan for murder in the shooting death of the unarmed Arbery on a Brunswick-area street on Feb. 23, 2020.

The McMichaels will now be held fully responsible for targeting her son because he is Black after a judge agreed with the family’s objections to a plea deal negotiated between the prosecutors for the U.S. Department of Justice and defense attorneys.

After they received life sentences in state court in January for murdering Arbery, the McMichaels would have served their first 30 years of prison time in the federal prison system instead of a Georgia prison under their Jan. 31 plea agreement.

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“I’m very thankful that you brought these charges of hate crimes but back on Jan. 31, you guys accepted a plea deal with these three murderers who took my son’s life,” Cooper-Jones said outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Brunswick.

“Even after the family stood before the judge and asked the judge to not take this plea deal, the lead prosecutor Tara Lyons asked the judge to ignore the family’s cry,” she said. “That’s not justice for Ahmaud. What we got today we wouldn’t have gotten if it was for the fight the family put up on Jan. 31.

“I, as a mom, will never heal,” Cooper-Jones said. “I told the justice department attorneys that they were prosecutors but one thing they didn’t have was a son lying in a cold grave.”

At a press conference, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said that it is hard to comprehend the suffering the Arbery family experienced with the hate-fueled violence that led to Arbery’s death.

“I cannot imagine the pain that a mother feels to have her son run down and then gunned down while taking a jog on a public street,” said a visibly shaken Garland. “My heart goes out to her and to the family. That’s really all I can say about this.”

The McMichaels and Bryan have 14 days to appeal their convictions on counts of attempted kidnapping, interference with rights, and carrying, brandishing and using a firearm during a violent crime.

U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, who rejected the plea terms, could hand down life sentences to the three men following a trial where prosecutors successfully argued that the defendants’ history of using racial slurs against Black people was the primary reason they pursued Arbery.

Historically speaking, a federal hate crime charge has rarely been prosecuted and often it’s challenging to prove motivation was due to bias based against a victim’s race, ethnicity, sexuality, or other characteristics.

Former Gwinnett County District Attorney Danny Porter said the court-appointed defense attorneys had a difficult job trying to argue that the men didn’t pursue Arbery because he was Black while acknowledging the defendants’ history of text messages, social media posts and conversations using the N-word, referring to Black people as savages and other racial slurs.

“Oftentimes criminals’ motives are mixed so I think the prosecution in this case, really did a good job of laying out a history on all three of their parts,” Porter said.

“I’m not saying this is the first hate crime that’s ever been prosecuted by the federal government, but it’s one of a few,” Porter said. “And I think it might help prosecutors realize that these cases can be successfully prosecuted.”

Chad Posick, criminal justice and criminology professor at Georgia Southern University, said because the judge declined the negotiated 30-year pleas, it’s likely the McMichaels and Bryan will get longer prison terms in the near future.

The case’s significance is tied to race in the deep South, a landmark federal hate crimes conviction, an archaic citizen’s arrest law, and the horrific imagery of Black man chased and killed by white men. Ultimately, the hate crimes conviction shows the impact of social media platforms and text messages and how spreading hateful things can come back to haunt, Posick said.

“There’s no law that says, ‘You can’t say those things on their own,’” Posick said. “They’re not criminal but they were used to substantiate that state of mind in a hate crimes case. Hopefully, people will see that and realize it’s serious to say these things and harbor this type of animus.”

Legacy of Arbery’s death

On a Sunday morning in 2020, the McMichaels grabbed their firearms and got into a pickup truck to chase Arbery, who they say they suspected of committing burglaries in their Satilla Shores neighborhood.

Investigators, however, testified that Arbery did not break any laws when he entered a home that was under construction, noting also that white people caught on surveillance video had done the same thing without consequence. But the McMichaels were spurred to vigilantism by Arbery’s presence.

Bryan, who authorities say attempted to run Arbery into a ditch multiple times after joining in the pursuit in his black pickup truck, recorded a viral video that spurred widespread national outrage and eventually the arrests of the three men.

The final moments of Arbery’s life came as he tried to fight off Travis McMichael, a shotgun-wielding man who fired three shots, after he tried to run away from the McMichaels and Bryan for five minutes.

After the damning video became public, Gov. Brian Kemp and state Attorney General Chris Carr announced that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation would take over the case, Local district attorneys declined for weeks after the killing to make arrests, citing self-defense and citizen’s arrest laws.

Former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Lee Johnson now faces federal charges for allegedly showing “favor and affection” to suspect Greg McMicheal, a former Glynn County police officer and investigator for the district attorney’s office.

Arbery’s death also spurred enough Republican state legislative support to pass a historic hate crimes law in June 2020.

A year later, legislators passed a bipartisan bill repealing the Civil War-era citizen’s arrest law that allowed people outside of law enforcement to detain someone they suspect of committing serious crimes.

If the 2020 state hate crimes law were on the books when Arbery was killed, the defendants charged in Arbery’s death could have been tried by prosecutors in order to add onto the sentencing following the murder convictions and other underlying offenses.

On Tuesday, Kemp released a statement saying the trial was “another necessary step toward justice in case this shocked many across our state and nation, my family included.”

“We continue to pray for Arbery’s family that they may find peace and healing after today’s verdict and remain committed to keeping Georgia a safe, hate-free place for all to call home.”

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