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Criminal Justice

Is A Guilty Verdict Enough? Black Residents in Atlanta Aren’t So Sure.

Ahmaud Arbery’s killers are facing life sentences, but some wonder if the punishment will be just

Ahmaud Arbery sign in Atlanta
People participate in a demonstration following the guilty verdict for the defendants in the trial of the killers of Ahmaud Arbery on November 24, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)

Atlanta resident Gregory Sutton has spent the last 15 years going in and out of Georgia prisons, sleeping on hard mattresses and confined to a cell for 23 hours a day — and that’s exactly the experience he wants for the three white men who chased down and murdered Ahmaud Arbery.

A jury found Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, guilty in a federal hate crime trial this week, affirming the prosecution’s case that they killed Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020, because he was Black. All three now face potential life sentences in the federal penal system.

Sutton said he’s happy about the verdict but hopes the men will serve out their life sentences for murder in Georgia prisons, which are predominately Black. Federal prisons are predominately white, and they’re generally known to have better conditions.

“I’ve been to prison six times so I know what it’s like to be in a Georgia prison,” Sutton said. “In the federal system, they can ship them to any prison in this country, making their time easier. I want them to stay so they can understand what it means to be a prisoner.”

Before the federal hate crime trial, the McMichaels and Bryan were found guilty of felony murder and other charges. The McMichaels received life with no possibility of parole. Bryan received life with the possibility of parole after 30 years. 

The McMichaels tried to negotiate a plea deal in their federal hate crime case, but the judge rejected the motion after Arbery’s family raised concerns that the resulting sentence could lead to more favorable imprisonment conditions if they’re transferred to a federal facility.

More from Capital B: Prosecutors rarely pursue hate crime charges. Here’s why Ahmaud Arbery’s murder was different.

Even with a sense of closure after the murder and hate crime convictions, Sutton feels like there is still a long way to go.

“Even though we are in Atlanta, which is predominantly Black, this is still Georgia,” he said. “I feel like they just gave us this conviction so they can keep us at bay, because they knew if they didn’t, we would get on the streets, protest and make them hear us.”

Atlanta residents made themselves heard in June 2020, responding to Arbery’s death and the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin with 11 days of social demonstrations as part of protests nationwide. Like Sutton, other Black Atlantans said they’re glad the justice system recognized the role racism played in Arbery’s death, but they’re not celebrating it as a major legal victory.

Ahmaud Abery's killers
Travis McMichael, William “Roddie” Bryan, and Gregory McMichael during their trial at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia. (Associated Press)

Stacy Harris, a Washington, D.C., native who has lived in Atlanta for 13 years, said he hadn’t experienced racism on a daily basis until moving to Georgia. 

“The level of racism there is not like how it is here in Georgia,” he said. “Everything is about skin color, and if you are Black, you get treated like nothing.”

Harris said Arbery’s death was an extreme example of the disregard for Black life in Georgia.  

“They did the crime, they were convicted and now they will spend the rest of their lives in prison” he said. “I don’t believe in the death penalty but what else could you want? We were heard.”

But is a guilty verdict enough?

Jenera Shannon, an Atlanta native who said she has experienced racism in different parts of the city, agrees that the men should serve their time in state versus federal prison. 

“They will have too many opportunities in federal prison,” she said. “In my mind, if they go into the federal prison system, which is predominantly white, that’s still white privilege.” 

According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons website, 57.7% of the inmate population is white, while Black inmates make up 38%. In the Georgia state prison system, 58.6% of the inmate population is Black.

Shannon says that she wants to see more efforts to educate Black citizens on the legal system. 

“I would love to see laws where we are ensuring Black people, especially Black men, understand their rights when approached by the police or white people, period,” Shannon said. “We need to be aware of what we can and can’t do so we don’t have to keep losing Black lives.”

Scott Hayden, an East Atlanta native, said that, as a Black man, he is cautiously optimistic at best that the hate crime conviction might signal some improvement in the fairness of the U.S. justice system.

“Knowing that one case has been held accountable still doesn’t make me feel secure as a Black man,” Hayden said. “It’s still work to be done.”