Wanda Cooper-Jones said she wanted guilty verdicts in the federal trial for her son’s killers by the time she marked two years since Ahmaud Arbery was gunned down during a jog.
They came a day earlier.
Jurors found Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan guilty of hate crimes on Tuesday, backing the prosecutors’ case that the men chased the 25-year-old through the streets of Brunswick, Georgia, on February 23, 2020, because he was Black. The three men are already serving life sentences, with Bryan eligible for parole after 30 years, following their murder convictions in a state trial.
As the verdicts were read aloud in court Tuesday, Arbery’s family held each other and cried. Moments later, they raised their arms in victory outside the courthouse.
On February 23, 2022, in events across Georgia, Arbery’s loved ones and friends commemorated his life and all the small victories since his death: from the changes in state law, to a resolution in his honor, a new scholarship for students of his alma mater and continued steps toward accountability.
‘A lot of change for the better’
Arbery’s most important legacy now is change, his mother said Wednesday morning.
Speaking at the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in downtown Atlanta, Cooper-Jones reflected on the last two years and all that has happened since.
“There has been a lot of change for the better,” she said. “When we hear the name of Ahmaud Arbery, we will now hear and think of change.”
Months after the fatal shooting, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp signed a hate crime bill into law that allows judges to increase punishment against those who target victims based on perceived race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender, mental disability or physical disability.
And last year, Kemp announced an overhaul of the state’s citizen’s arrest law. The new law requires that a person attempting to carry out a citizen’s arrest must call authorities within an hour or release the detained offender. If law enforcement does not arrive within the hour, the detainee must be released.
“Nothing will bring my son back, but I know that God wants us to repurpose the pain – my pain – into service to make life better for other young men like Ahmaud,” she said.
It’s why she founded the Ahmaud Arbery Foundation in his honor, Cooper-Jones said. The organization works to support the mental wellness of Black boys, who often lack access to critical mental health resources, according to its website.
“Justice goes beyond judgment made in a courtroom,” Cooper-Jones continued. “Justice ensures every child, no matter of his skin color, his socioeconomic situation, is safe and has equal opportunities to realize their dreams.”
The foundation will award six $3,000 scholarships to seniors from Brunswick High School, where Arbery graduated from in 2012, she announced. Its recipients will be honored on May 8 – what would have been Arbery’s 28th birthday.
“We believe in helping to create opportunities for young Black men to further their education, to start a business, to simply build a life,” Cooper-Jones said. “Something Ahmaud did not have a chance to do.”
Doves to honor a young life
Three hundred miles away, in coastal Glynn County, Marcus Arbery Sr. stood near the place his son was killed in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, surrounded by family, friends and community members. Many carried “Justice for Ahmaud” signs.
The crowd had gathered around 1 p.m., at approximately the same time the three men began chasing down Arbery two years ago. Arbery Sr. joined interfaith leaders of the county’s clergy in prayer before talking about his son.
Wearing a face mask with his son’s photo and a white shirt with the words, “Ahmaud’s daddy,” Arbery Sr. became visibly emotional as he recalled the day of the fatal shooting – and how long it took to get the three White men arrested.
The McMichaels were taken into custody in May 2020 – more than two months after the fatal shooting – after video of the incident surfaced. Bryan was arrested later that month.
Arbery Sr. said the authorities involved did not do their jobs properly, and called on them to be fired.
“I didn’t ask for this fight. When you killed my baby, you brought me in this fight and if I have to die fighting, it don’t matter what you do now, I’ll die fighting for my baby and my people, for all the people,” he said.
Arbery’s aunt, Kim, told the crowd her nephew had stayed with her for several weeks before his murder. He left a Polo shirt behind, she said – “the only thing I could cherish him with, besides looking at a picture of him every day.”
“It’s still unbelievable,” Kim added. “I still wake up plenty of nights, looking for my nephew, knowing he ain’t coming back.”
Around the time it is believed Arbery drew his last breaths, Arbery Sr. and his family released four white doves in his honor. The group vowed to return next year.
A day for Ahmaud Arbery
Around the same time, Cooper-Jones and others gathered in the city of Marietta to celebrate Arbery’s life and recognize Georgia’s first annual Ahmaud Arbery Day, after lawmakers adopted a resolution earlier this month.
Cobb County District Attorney Flynn Broady, who instructed the prosecutorial team during the state trial of the McMichaels and Bryan, led the event. “We are here to chart a path forward, with the hope that we can rid our communities, our state, our nation, of the hate, the division and the intolerance which led these men to believe in the legality of their actions,” Broady said.
Two students from a nearby high school spoke about what it means to be young and Black in America.
“The killing of Mr. Arbery was a show of hatred unlike anything else I had experienced,” one tenth grade student told the crowd.
“I will never forget this day,” the other student added. “My mother, who stands in this crowd, told me to not go outside because the sidewalk I saw could be my last and no mother should have to experience that. But a mother on the same stage as me did,” the student said, looking toward Cooper-Jones.
What comes next
For Cooper-Jones, the day drew to a close inside an Atlanta restaurant, where she sat for dinner surrounded by family and friends.
It was around this time in 2020 that she received the call that her son had died, she told CNN. “It was a very, very hard day. But today was very, very rewarding,” Cooper-Jones said. “He was celebrated today.”
Echoing Arbery Sr.’s words, she called for those who mishandled the case to be held accountable, pointing to the first two prosecutors involved.
Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson had recused herself from the case, citing Gregory McMichael’s position as a former investigator in her office. Attorney General Chris Carr’s office said it didn’t receive Johnson’s request for a new prosecutor until February 27.
When George Barnhill, District Attorney of the Waycross Judicial Circuit, took over, he informed the attorney general in April of his conflict of interest: his son worked in Johnson’s office and had worked with Gregory McMichael on an earlier prosecution of Arbery.
But Barnhill failed to disclose he had also been involved in the case before his formal appointment by telling Glynn County police officers he did not see grounds for the arrests of the three men involved in Arbery’s shooting, Carr’s office said.
Carr appointed a third prosecutor to the case. In May 2020, he announced an investigation into the two district attorneys’ conduct. He later appointed a fourth prosecutor after the previous one stepped down due to lack of sufficient resources.
Last September, Johnson was indicted on charges of violating her oath as a public officer and obstructing a police officer in connection to Arbery’s fatal shooting. Johnson allegedly prevented two officers from exercising their rights by directing them not to place the younger McMichael under arrest, the indictment said. She also allegedly showed “favor and affection” to the elder McMichael during the investigation, according to the indictment.
CNN reached out to attorneys for Johnson for comment but has not heard back. An arraignment for Johnson has not been scheduled yet, according to a spokesperson for Carr’s office.
An investigation is ongoing, Carr said this week, and his office is “committed to a complete and transparent investigation of how this case was handled from the outset.”
There’s more work to do, Cooper-Jones said Wednesday night, but she also looks to all that has happened so far with pride: the change in legislation, the resolution honoring her son, the foundation looking to help other Black youth, and the scholarships for students.
“We’ve got recognition for the life of Ahmaud,” she said.
CNN’s Sam Perez and Chris Youd contributed to this report.