The 3 men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery could face a minimum of 30 years in prison if eligible for parole

Mother of Ahmaud Arbery holds flowers next to a portrait of her son.
Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, leaves the Glynn County Courthouse as jury deliberations began in the trial of the killers of her son on November 23, 2021 in Brunswick, Georgia. Sean Rayford/Getty Images
  • Under Georgia law, a felony murder conviction requires a minimum sentence of life in prison.
  • It is up to a judge whether the men will eligible for parole after at least 30 years behind bars.
  • A sentencing hearing has not yet been announced.

The three men convicted of killing a 25-year-old Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, while he was out jogging have not been sentenced yet. Georgia Superior Court Judge Timothy R. Walmsley said Wednesday that he hopes to set a sentencing date within the next few weeks.

Under Georgia law, all three are likely to receive life sentences in prison, given their felony murder convictions. The question remains whether those sentences will come with the possibility of parole. If Walmsley decides they should be eligible for parole, they could be released under state supervision after 30 years behind bars.

On Wednesday, a jury in Glynn County, Georgia, convicted Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan of killing Arbery in February 2020. The incident was captured by Bryan on a cellphone video that was later published by a local radio outlet.

The three men faced nine counts each in relation to Arbery’s murder. Travis McMichael was convicted on all nine counts, while his father Gregory was found guilty of eight of nine, and Bryan was convicted on six of the nine counts.

Travis McMichael, who fired the fatal shot after chasing Arbery down in his pick-up truck, was convicted on all counts, including “malice murder” and “felony murder.” Both his father and Bryan, however, were found not guilty of malice murder — defined as murder committed “with malice aforethought” — but convicted of felony murder.

Practically, the difference is nil. “The sentence for felony murder and malice murder is exactly the same,” Ron Carlson, a University of Georgia law professor emeritus, told the Associated Press. “It’s a distinction without a difference in terms of punishment.”

Under state law, the minimum sentence for felony murder is “imprisonment for life.” Prosecutors did not seek the death penalty.

 

The jury’s careful decisions in doling out the guilty and not guilty verdicts among the men likely hints at the eventual sentences each will receive, according to Robert A. Sanders, a former federal prosecutor and chair of the national security department at the University of New Haven.

“For Travis, it was a slam dunk across the board. Everything he was charged with he was found guilty of,” Sanders told Insider. “That should go in favor of a heavier sentence.”

The legal expert speculated that Gregory McMichael’s chances of parole are a “toss-up,” while Bryan’s likelihood of receiving parole is greater, given his lesser charges. 

All three defendants will have the opportunity to present extenuating and mitigating circumstances prior to their sentencing, highlighting their age, health, or any additional information that could curry favor with a judge, Sanders said.

The defense team for Travis McMichael, who likely faces the steepest sentence, will have to choose between two tactics when it comes time to plead for a light sentence.

“He can maintain it was self defense, that he didn’t do anything wrong and shouldn’t be punished for it, or he can say ‘I now fall on my sword’ and plead for mercy,” Sanders said. 

“They’ll have to decide that as a defense, thinking also about what they’re going to appeal and how what he says detracts from being able to appeal in a certain way,” he added.

An attorney for the McMichaels said Wednesday that the team “absolutely” plans to appeal.

But Judge Walmsley will also have a chance ahead of sentencing to consider extenuating evidence that didn’t make it to trial, according to a former federal prosecutor and the president of West Coast Trial lawyers Neama Rahmani, including Bryan’s initial allegation that Travis used the “N-word” after killing Arbery.

“It’s something the judge can consider as an aggravating factor,” Rahmani told Insider.

Bryan told law enforcement about Travis McMichaels’ alleged use of the slur following Arbery’s murder, but because Bryan did not take the stand during the state trial, and was, therefore, not subject to cross-examination, the evidence could not be used in court, Rahmani said. 

Despite Wednesday’s decisive verdicts, there are still two ongoing cases related to Arbery’s murder, including a civil lawsuit filed earlier this year by Arbery’s mother, and a federal hate crime case against the three men slated to begin in February. 

Any convictions stemming from the hate crime case would likely be served concurrently to the life sentences resulting from the state case.

“You can’t get a dead body back in person,” Sanders said. “Without the possibility of parole, they’ll never live long enough to execute a federal sentence. They would never finish the state component while alive.”

But at their sentencing hearing, which has yet to be announced, Judge Walmsley will decide one thing: “Is this a life without possibility of parole case or should these three individuals be afforded some opportunity for parole?” Rahmani said. 

If Walmsley does decide that one or more of the men should be eligible for release someday, their first appearance for a parole board would not be until 2051.

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