ATLANTA — A federal judge on Monday issued another life sentence to Travis McMichael, one of three white Georgia men convicted of committing a federal hate crime for the pursuit and slaying of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, in February 2020.
And in an equally dramatic move, U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected a request by Mr. McMichael — who was previously sentenced to life for his state murder conviction — that he be allowed to serve the first few years of the concurrent life sentences in federal prison.
His lawyer has said that Mr. McMichael has received hundreds of death threats, and argued in court that her client would be safer in the federal system and less likely to be subject to “vigilante justice.”
But a number of Mr. Arbery’s family members came to court and argued that Mr. McMichael and the two other men convicted in the killing should receive no special treatment. Marcus Arbery, Mr. Arbery’s father, said that he wanted the men to “rot in the state prison.”
“These three devils have broken my heart into pieces,” he said.
The sentencing hearing for Mr. McMichael, 36, in a Brunswick, Ga., courtroom, is the first of three hearings set for Monday for the men, whose actions, caught on video, horrified the nation and the world. Prosecutors contended that the killing of Mr. Arbery was the men’s own version of vigilante justice, motivated by racism. The second man — Mr. McMichael’s father, Greg McMichael, 66 — is set to be sentenced at 1 p.m. Eastern time, and the third man who chased Mr. Arbery, William Bryan, has a hearing at 3 p.m.
Mr. McMichael shot Mr. Arbery at close range with a shotgun after the pursuit, which unfolded over several minutes on a Sunday afternoon in Satilla Shores, a suburban neighborhood just outside of Brunswick. The three white men gave chase in a pair of pickup trucks as Mr. Arbery tried desperately to run away from them.
Moments earlier, Mr. Arbery had been inside a house under construction, and the men who killed him said they suspected him of committing a string of property crimes. Mr. Arbery’s relatives said that Mr. Arbery, an avid runner, had been out for a Sunday jog. In court proceedings, all three defendants were shown to have harbored racial animus toward Black people.
Mr. McMichael declined to speak in court Monday. The judge said she had given long and serious consideration to the matter of his sentencing. At one point, she referred to the February 2022 federal trial she presided over, in which all three men were found guilty of a hate crime.
It had been a fair trial, she said — “the kind of trial that Ahmaud Arbery did not receive before he was shot and killed.”
In addition to the life sentence for the hate-crime charge of “interference with rights,” the judge sentenced Mr. McMichael to 20 years, to be served concurrently, for attempted kidnapping and 10 years, to be served consecutively, for a federal weapons charge.
Those sentences are likely to have little practical effect, because Mr. McMichael is already serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole for the state murder conviction. The more pressing matter for Mr. McMichael was the question of where he would serve his time.
In a court filing last, week, his lawyer, Amy Lee Copeland, described the threats he had received.
“Hundreds of threats,” she wrote. “He quit counting in January 2022, at around 800 threats. The threats have included statements that his image has been circulated through the state prison system on contraband cellphones, that people are ‘waiting for him,’ that he should not go into the yard, and that correctional officers have promised a willingness (whether for pay or for free) to keep certain doors unlocked and backs turned to allow inmates to harm him.”
Ms. Copeland noted that the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division is conducting an investigation into dangerous conditions in the Georgia prison system, made worse by staffing shortages, training issues and other factors. Ms. Copeland cited an analysis from Georgia Public Broadcasting that found that 53 homicides had occurred in Georgia state prisons in 2020 and 2021.
Mr. McMichael, Greg McMichael and Mr. Bryan are currently being held in a local jail, the Glynn County Detention Center, where they have been since they were arrested in May 2020.
In her court filing, Ms. Copeland said that Mr. McMichael would “ideally” be housed in federal prison “through the term of his concurrent federal sentence,” but “at the very least” should be housed in a federal prison through the appeals process in his federal case.
In court, however, Ms. Copeland asked only for Mr. McMichael to be housed in the federal system through the appeals process, allowing for what she called a “cooling off” period that might help ensure his safety.
Ms. Copeland said she recognized the “rich irony” of being concerned about her client being a victim of vigilante justice. But she said that if he is sent to a Georgia state prison, he “effectively faces a back-door death penalty.”
Prosecutors argued against allowing Mr. McMichael to go to federal prison first, noting that convicts normally serve their time first in the prison system of the government entity that prosecuted them first — in this case, the state of Georgia.
In the end, Judge Wood said she had “neither the authority nor the inclination” to send Travis McMichael to federal prison first.
A judge sentenced Greg McMichael in January to life without the possibility of parole for the state murder charge he faced. Mr. Bryan was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole after 30 years.
The two men now face possible federal life sentences for their hate-crime convictions.