Judge denies challenge to constitutionality of mandatory life sentence for one of Arbery’s killers

William "Roddie" Bryan stands next to his attorney Kevin Gough after the jury handed down their verdict in the Glynn County Courthouse. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton, Pool) (Stephen B. Morton, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – With his client facing a mandatory term of life in prison for felony murder, attorney Kevin Gough filed a motion Friday to challenge the constitutionality of that sentence.

“We’ll be filing a motion this morning challenging the constitutionality of the mandatory life sentence for felony murder for individuals such as Roddie Bryan, who neither killed, attempted to kill or intended to kill anyone,” Gough told News4JAX outside the Glynn County Courthouse Friday morning. “There will be a couple of other motions to be filed, and then we’ll get into the sentencing hearing.”

The judge denied all of Gough’s motions.

William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, faces sentencing Friday along with 35-year-old Travis McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael, who recently turned 66.

The three white men were convicted roughly six weeks ago of murder for chasing a running Arbery in pickup trucks, cutting off the unarmed Black man’s escape and fatally blasting him with a shotgun.

The guilty verdicts handed down the day before Thanksgiving prompted a victory celebration outside the Glynn County courthouse for those who saw Arbery's death as part of a larger national reckoning on racial injustice.

Testimony in court Friday was more sorrowful as members of Arbery’s family bared their grief and loss to the judge before he imposes punishments on the three men.

Murder carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison under Georgia law unless prosecutors seek the death penalty, which they opted against for Arbery's killing. For Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley, the main decision will be whether to grant the defendants an eventual chance to earn parole.

Either choice amounts to a stiff sentence. Even if the judge allows a possibility of parole, the McMichaels and Bryan will have to serve at least 30 years in prison first.

Next month, the McMichaels and Bryan face a second trial, this time in U.S. District Court on federal hate crime charges. A judge has set jury selection to begin Feb. 7. Prosecutors will argue that the three men violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he was Black.

Gough, who drew national attention during the trial when he asked the judge not to allow “any more Black pastors” in the courtroom, said that the upcoming federal trial was part of why he had little to say Friday about the sentencing hearing.

“There’s a federal trial coming up in a couple of weeks. Mr. Bryan has very capable federal counsel handling that case. And certainly, we don’t want to do or say anything here today that might complicate his job or make it harder, so that’s about all I can tell you on that subject,” Gough said. “We are here today to talk about the mandatory life sentence for felony murder -- life without parole -- and whether that’s constitutional, generally, and as applied to Mr. Bryan.”

All three men were also convicted of aggravated assault, false imprisonment and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. Maximum prison terms for those counts range from five to 20 years. The judge was likely to allow those additional penalties to be served simultaneously with the life sentences for murder.

The McMichaels grabbed guns and jumped in a pickup truck to chase the 25-year-old Arbery after spotting him running in their neighborhood outside the Georgia port city of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael firing close-range shotgun blasts into Arbery as he threw punches and grabbed for the weapon.

The killing went largely unnoticed until two months later, when the graphic video was leaked online and touched off a national outcry. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police and soon arrested all three men.

Defense attorneys argued that the McMichaels were attempting a legal citizen’s arrest when they set off after Arbery, seeking to detain and question him after he was seen running from a nearby home under construction.

Travis McMichael testified that he shot Arbery in self-defense. He said Arbery turned and attacked with his fists while running past the truck where McMichael stood with his shotgun.

At the time of his death, Arbery had enrolled at a technical college and was preparing to study to become an electrician like his uncles.

Defense attorneys have said they plan to appeal the convictions. They have 30 days after sentencing to file them.

About the Authors:

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.