By Danny R. Johnson – Political News Editor
San Diego, CA–Attorney General Merrick Garland on Tuesday sidestepped criticism of how the Justice Department managed a hate crimes prosecution against the three men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was chased and gunned down in February 2020 while jogging through a neighborhood outside Brunswick, Georgia.
A jury convicted the three Georgia men — Travis McMichael, 36, his father, Gregory McMichael, 66, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52 — on federal hate crime charges Tuesday following a trial that featured evidence of them using racial epithets and insults. The guilty verdicts came just weeks after the three men received life sentences in state court on murder convictions, with only Bryan having a chance of parole.
Ahead of the trial, Arbery’s family objected to a plea deal the Justice Department reached with the McMichaels, in part because it would have allowed the father and son to serve the bulk of their sentences in federal prison rather than Georgia’s state system. A federal judge rejected the plea deals, paving the way for the trial that resulted in their convictions on hate crimes charges.
But on Tuesday, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she still felt “ignored” by the Justice Department.
At a press conference Tuesday, Garland grew emotional when asked about that criticism.
“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. My heart goes out to her and the family,” Garland said. “That’s all I can say about this.”
Garland said the “defendants’ actions and the racism that fueled them have inflicted enduring trauma” on Arbery’s family and friends in the press conference.
“No one in this country should have to fear the threat of hate-fueled violence,” he said. “No one should fear being attacked or threatened because of what they look like, where they are from, whom they love, or how they worship. And no one should fear that, if they go out for a run, they will be targeted and killed because of the color of their skin.”
Responding to the guilty verdicts, Cooper-Jones said she would “never heal” and that the convictions marked “another milestone, another challenge that we’ve overcome.”
“Today is Super Tuesday,” she said. “We got a guilty verdict on all charges for all murderers.”
Standing outside a federal courthouse in Georgia, she noted that the convictions came on the eve of the second anniversary of her son’s death. On February 23, 2020, Arbery was jogging unarmed through a neighborhood outside Georgia when the three men jumped into a pair of trucks to chase him. Travis McMichael later fatally shot him three times at close range with a shotgun.
The family of Ahmaud Arbery savored the federal conviction, “Ahmaud will continue to rest in peace. But he will now begin to rest in power,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told reporters outside the courthouse.
However, she took issue with the Justice Department’s handling of the case. Cooper-Jones said that Justice had initially been agreed to accept a plea bargain from her son’s killers and ignored the family, who had implored them not to do it. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke and the lead attorney, Tara Lyons, said that Justice “entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it.”
Under the deal, the McMichaels would plead guilty to a single hate crime charge in exchange for a 30-year sentence and admit that they had been motivated by hate. Cooper-Jones protested, telling the judge: “I do not need to hear them say they were motivated by hate. That does me no good. It does my family no good.”
Federal Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the deposition, saying that she was not “comfortable accepting the plea agreement terms,” and the three defendants went to trial. In sentencing the three in the Georgia state court, Judge Walmsley said that “everybody is accountable to the rule of law.”