A verdict not held hostage to history

After the verdict (from left), attorney Benjamin Crump, Marcus Arbery, Rev. Al Sharpton and Wanda Cooper-Jones react outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga. Jurors found the three men guilty in Ahmaud Arbery’s death on Wednesday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Joshua Lott

When Travis McMichael heard the nine guilty verdicts delivered against him, beginning with malice murder, he blinked, glanced downward and exhaled. His chest rose and deflated in his gray blazer as he listened to the judgment that his fellow citizens made regarding his culpability in the death of Ahmaud Arbery. McMichael’s expression didn’t change. He barely blinked as his lawyer’s hand rested on his shoulder. But in that instant, with that quiet puff of air escaping his body, it was as though the ghosts of the past swept through him. And while no single trial can serve as a referendum on racial justice, the verdict was a vital piece of evidence proving the country is not a hostage to its history.

“Let the word go forth all over the world that a jury of eleven Whites and one Black, in the deep South, stood up in the courtroom and said that Black lives matter,” said civil rights activist Al Sharpton during a news conference outside the courthouse after the verdicts were read Wednesday afternoon.

McMichael, one of the three men accused and ultimately held responsible for Arbery’s death, was the one who fired the gun that killed him. The other two had been part of the chase; they’d been accomplices in terror. The jury decided that Travis McMichael was alone in his malice but not in his guilt. His father, Greg, was convicted of felony murder, along with William “Roddie” Bryan. Greg McMichael’s gaze was cast down, and he briefly closed his eyes as he listened to the jury’s decision. Bryan’s mouth was set in a grim line. Both men were deathly still. The life had not seeped out of them, but the bravado had. They did not look defiant or tough. The certainty that once hung so easily from their shoulders was gone.

The jury deliberated less than two days. But justice didn’t roll in like thunder. It had taken months before any charges had been filed in this case. This prosecution was in doubt. Justice inched its way in on stacks of evidence and the plain-spoken arguments of the lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski. Justice was dragged in by activists who marched and chanted and drowned out the voices of doubt and resistance. It was prayed in by Arbery’s parents, Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery. He’d shouted in praise when the first verdict was read – and was told to leave the courtroom because of that outburst. Her eyes glistened as she quietly looked to the heavens and took it all in.

When these parents finally spoke to the crowd of supporters assembled on the street, each of them offered thanks to a higher power.

“Number one, I want to give all glory to God because that’s who made all this possible,” Marcus Arbery said.

“It’s been a long fight. It’s been a hard fight. But God is good,” Cooper-Jones said.

They kept their remarks brief, as did the lawyers who’d stood by their side throughout their ordeal. They said a few words about patience and determination, as well as the power of protest. Dunikoski was greeted with applause and cheers as she stood before the microphones and reminded everyone that her win was a team effort. And then she, too, quickly wrapped up. The White House released a brief statement in which President Joe Biden expressed thanks that the justice system did its job. But noted, “that alone is not enough. Instead, we must recommit ourselves to building a future of unity and shared strength, where no one fears violence because of the color of their skin.” Justice shouldn’t require prayer chains and placards.

Justice is supposed to be sweet, something that one might want to savor. But sometimes, the wait is so exhausting, so uncertain that when justice finally arrives all anyone can do is just take a deep breath to make up for all those days and months – and sometimes years – when folks were so busy hoping and fighting that they forgot to exhale. As Arbery’s parents made their way through the crowd, they were helped along by law enforcement. Last year, officers had dawdled in rendering aid to their son as he laid bleeding and dying in the street. Last year, the system said their son had died committing a burglary when no such evidence existed. On Wednesday, men in uniform followed in the wake of Arbery’s parents, protecting their back, giving them space and giving them room to breathe.

The men convicted of Arbery’s murder also left the courthouse Wednesday. They were placed in separate cars. Travis McMichael shuffled as he walked; his ankles were tethered with chains. He was no longer wearing his tie. The men who had deputized themselves to target and hunt Arbery now face the possibility of life sentences without parole. The gang of three had fallen prey to their fear of a Black man running. The jury did not. The jury believed the facts, not tropes, innuendos or stereotypes. The jury saw the world through Arbery’s eyes.

Justice finally arrived and Cooper-Jones said it meant that her son could now rest in peace. His last breath had not been in vain.



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