In the Sentencing of Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers, the Justice System Operated at its Best

Posted in: Criminal Procedure

On Friday, we watched the judicial system at its best. In this moment when so many of our civic standards are under assault, it is worth acknowledging, even uplifting, institutions and individuals performing with excellence.

At the January 7 sentencing of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers, his family expressed their palpable grief and anger with passion and eloquence. Judge Timothy Walmsley carefully listened. He took a long recess to reflect before imposing the proper sentences on the three convicted killers.

Travis McMichael pulled the trigger on Arbery, a 25-year-old man who had the temerity to jog while Black in a white Georgia neighborhood. McMichael will spend his life in prison without the possibility of parole, as will his father and chief partner in the crime, former police officer Greg McMichael. The third guilty man, William “Roddy” Bryant, had expressed remorse, and received a life term with future parole eligibility.

Judge Walmsley attended closely to the victim impact statements of Arbery’s parents. His father, Marcus Arbery, said through tears that his son was killed “while he was doing what he loved more than anything – running. That’s when he felt most alive, most free and they took all that from him.”

Wanda Cooper-Jones spoke directly to her son’s spirit. “Raising you was the honor of my life.”

Then, with barely suppressed fury, she delivered a message to Laura Hogue, lawyer for murderer Greg McMichael. Hogue had dog-whistled this racist closing argument line: “Turning Ahmaud Arbery into a victim . . . does not reflect the reality of what brought [him] to Satilla Shores in his khaki shorts with no socks to cover his long, dirty toenails.”

Hogue was present Friday to hear Ms. Cooper-Jones dice those offensive remarks with sarcastic precision: “I wished he had cut and cleaned his toenails when he went out on the jog that day.”

“I guess he would have if he’d known he would be murdered that day.”

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At sentencing hearings across the country, the law now requires judges to allow victims to speak. Still, judges who enter court already committed to a sentence can proceed immediately to impose it after hearing the victim speak. There is no mandate that they stop, call a recess and reflect on the victims’ words.

For example, years after federal law began mandating that sentencing judges allow victims to be heard, D. Brock Hornsby, a U.S. district court judge in Maine, felt compelled to offer this advice to his judicial peers across the country: “After hearing from the various speakers, take a brief recess before imposing sentence.” He wanted other judges to consider the statement, “not just adher[e] to a predetermined outcome.”

On Friday, Judge Walmsley did not need any such advice. He took a long recess after Arbery’s family spoke. He then returned to the courtroom and threw the book at the McMichaels.

The adoption of laws requiring courts to invite victim impact statements goes back decades, with roots in the Charles Manson killings in 1969. Among those murdered was Hollywood actress Sharon Tate, who was eight months pregnant.

In 1982, when Doris Tate, Sharon’s mother, heard that Manson family members might be paroled, she started attending the hearings. Of one killer who sought release, she asked, “What mercy did you show my daughter when she said, ‘Give me two weeks to have my baby, then you can kill me?’”

Tate demonstrated the power of committed, organized activism by spearheading a group that successfully advocated for states nationwide to adopt the Victims’ Bill of Rights. In the Bill was the right to make a sentencing statement. As one victims’ advocate has written, “With an Impact Statement, victims have a voice . . . that speaks to the depth of their experience and the toll it has taken on all aspects of their lives.”

That’s not to say that victim statements always produce appropriate sentences. Ask Chanel Miller, who in 2016 read a powerful 12-page statement in Santa Clara, California, court at the sentencing of Stanford University swimmer Brock Turner for sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious. His sentence was, pathetically, six months in jail. (Voters later recalled the judge, Aaron Persky.)

By contrast, on Friday, Timothy Walmsley was a jurist worthy of his robes.  He showed America the law and our courts working as they should.

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