Ahmaud Arbery’s mother said her son would have cut his toenails “if he knew he would be murdered that day” as she delivered an emotional victim impact statement at the sentencing of his three murderers.
Wanda Cooper-Jones spoke at Glynn County Courthouse in Brunwick, Georgia, on Friday morning about the toll her 25-year-old son’s brutal murder at the hands of Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr. has had on her family’s life.
Ms Cooper-Jones referenced comments made by one of the defence attorneys at trial where they described her son’s “long, dirty toenails”.
“Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim after the choices that he made does not reflect the reality of what brought Ahmaud Arbery to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails,” Gregory McMichael’s lawyer Laura Hogue said in closing arguments.
The comments - a reference to Mr Arbery’s autopsy report - sparked an outcry over the attempt to paint Mr Arbery as a criminal and not as the victim of his own murder.
Ms Cooper-Jones, who was wearing a badge with a photo of her son, choked back tears as she referenced the derogatory comments about her son in court on Friday.
“I wished he had cut and cleaned his toenails when he went out on the jog that day,” she told the court.
“I guess he would have if he’d known he would be murdered that day.”
She began her victim impact statement speaking “directly to my son”, telling him that raising him was “the honour of my life”.
“This verdict doesn’t bring you back but it does help bring closure to this very difficult chapter of my life,” she said.
“I made a promise to you the day I laid you to rest. I told you I loved you and that some day somehow I would get you justice.
“Son, I love you as much today as the day you were born. Raising you was the honour of my life and I am very proud of you.”
Ms Cooper-Jones sat in the courthouse throughout the trial and was seen breaking down in tears as the court was shown her son’s white T-shirt stained red with blood and graphic photos of his dead body.
She asked the court to sentence all three men to life without the possibility of parole.
“These men have chose to lie and attack my son and his surviving family, they each have no remorse and don’t deserve any leniency,” she said.
“This wasn’t a case of mistaken identity. They chose to target my son because they didn’t want him in their community... and when they couldn’t sufficiently scare him or intimidate him they killed him.”
On 23 February 2020, the three white men chased the Black man, who was unarmed, through the Satilla Shores neighbourhood in Brunswick, Georgia, in their pickup trucks, trapping him with their vehicles before Travis McMichael shot him dead in the road.
Ms Cooper-Jones has waited almost two years for her son’s killers to be brought to justice after they evaded prosecution for months in the aftermath of the February 2020 murder – only being arrested when footage of the attack was leaked on social media.
The three white men were found guilty in November on multiple state charges including murder.
Travis and Gregory McMichael were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole on Friday.
Bryan was sentenced to life with parole after Judge Timothy Walmsley said he believes he “stands in very different shoes” to the McMichaels.
All three faced mandatory minimum sentences of life in prison for their murder charges but the judge decided whether they were granted the possibility of parole or whether they must die behind bars.
Even with the possibility of parole, Bryan will not be eligible for release for at least 30 years under Georgia law.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski had asked the judge to sentence Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael to life without the possibility of parole. She asked the judge to sentence Bryan to life with the possibility of parole.
She described a “pattern of vigilantism” by the McMichaels and said they “should have known better” given their law enforcement experience.
Meanwhile, Mr Arbery’s family members all pleaded for all three killers to be given no option of parole.
In his victim impact statement, Mr Arbery’s father Marcus Arbery told the court “my heart always will be broken” but vowed to “fight” for the legacy of his son.
He described watching the father and son duo Travis and Gregory McMichael sitting together in the courtroom while he will never see his son again.
“The man who killed my son has sat in this courtroom every single day next to his father,” he said.
“I’ll never get that chance of sitting next to my son ever again, not at the dinner table, not at the holidays and not anywhere.”
“When I close my eyes, I see his execution in my mind over and over. I’ll see that for the rest of my life,” he said.
Mr Arbery’s sister Jasmine Arbery described how the things she loved about her brother were the same things that led the three men to murder him that day.
“Ahmaud had dark skin that glistened in the sunlight like gold. He had thick, coily hair and he would often like to twist it. Ahmaud had a broad nose... He was tall with an athletic build. He enjoyed running and had an appreciation for being outdoors,” she said.
“These are the qualities that made these men assume that Ahmaud was a dangerous criminal and chase him with guns drawn.
“To me, those qualities reflect a young man full of life and energy, who looked like me, and the people I love.”
The defence began its presentation at the sentencing late morning with Travis McMichael’s attorney Robert Rubin asking that the 35-year-old be granted life with parole.
He claimed Mr Arbery’s death was the result of “a fight over a gun” and said that his client’s actions were “not evidence of a soul so blackened as to deserve life with no parole”.
Ms Hogue continued the defence’s presentation after a recess, asking for some of Gregory McMichael’s charges to be merged rather than run concurrently.
She denied the prosecutor’s assertion that he has not shown remorse saying he has been unable to express sympathy to Mr Arbery’s family because of the upcoming charges he still faces in federal court.
She claimed he is a “good person” who has done “thousands and thousands of big and little acts of kindness” throughout his life and “served his community” as a police officer in the years before he murdered the Black man.
Bryan’s attorney Kevin Gough sought to distinguish himself from the other two saying he was “not a vigilante”, was unarmed and had “no idea what was going on” in the run-up to the killing of Mr Arbery.
Mr Gough then went on to claim that Mr Arbery may still be alive if Bryan had been successful in striking him with his car during the case.
“If his vehicle had collided with Mr Arbery then Mr Arbery would maybe still be alive,” he said.
He asked the judge to grant life with the possibility of parole but with early parole consideration.
The prosecutor instantly responded that such relief cannot apply to a felony murder conviction.
Ms Dunikoski also rebutted the defence’s arguments on Gregory and Travis McMichael, saying about the latter that “the jury did find that he had an abandoned and malignant heart”.
Ahead of Friday’s sentencing, Ms Cooper-Jones said outside the courthouse that she doesn’t “want to hear anything from Travis” in the courtroom, saying that hearing the man who pulled the trigger take the stand at his trial made her feel even worse.
“I really don’t want to hear anything from Travis. I really don’t want to hear anything from either defendants,” she said.
“There’s nothing that they can tell me today that would make me feel better. I miss Ahmaud more and more each day.”
Earlier this week, she rejected an 11th-hour plea deal for the three men which would have sentenced them to 30 years in federal prison on hate crimes charges.
The killers face a separate federal trial, set to begin in February, on hate crime charges which accuse the three men of using force to intimidate and interfere with Mr Arbery’s rights because of his race. They face life in prison on these federal charges.
Attorney Lee Merritt said the family was contacted by the Justice Department with the plea deal but turned it down because she wants them to also face trial on the federal charges.
“We believe that today the state will move forward with life sentences without the possibility of parole, and we think that’s the appropriate sentence,” Mr Merritt said.
All three men were charged with nine counts, including one count of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Travis McMichael was convicted on all charges, Gregory McMichael of eight charges excluding the count of malice murder and Bryan of six charges – three counts of felony murder, one count of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
Following the verdict, Ms Cooper-Jones told a crowd of supporters outside the courthouse that she had believed she would never get justice for her son.
“To tell the truth, I never saw this day back in 2020. I never thought this day would come. But God is good,” she said.
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