Life Sentences for Arbery's Killers Nothing to CelebrateBreaking News
tags: criminal justice, Incarceration, Ahmaud Arbery
Joseph Margulies is Professor of Law and Government at Cornell University. He was Counsel of Record in Rasul v. Bush (2004), involving detentions at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Station, and in Geren v. Omar and Munaf v. Geren (2008), involving detentions at Camp Cropper in Iraq. His books include Guantánamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power and What Changed When Everything Changed: 9/11 and the Making of National Identity.
On Monday a federal judge sentenced three white men—Greg McMichael, Travis McMichael, and William Bryan—for the racially motivated murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia in 2020. The McMichaels received life sentences, while Bryan received thirty-five years. The sentences will run concurrently with life sentences handed down by a Georgia court earlier this year—the McMichaels without the possibility of parole, and Bryan with the possibility of parole after thirty years. The McMichaels will therefore die in prison, and it is very likely Bryan will too.
As a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer, I have worked within—and sought to change—the staggeringly unjust U.S. criminal justice system for more than thirty years. I spoke and wrote in support of both the state and federal prosecutions of Arbery’s killers, and I think they ought to be in prison. But I also think the sentences they have received are excessive.
Granted, their sentences are far from the longest on record, and people of color disproportionately receive very long or fatal prison sentences. But I think those sentences are excessive too—and I have seen their effects firsthand. Over the course of my career I have defended people charged with the most vicious crimes whom others called monsters and refused to see as human; all were poor, most were people of color, and many faced the death penalty. I think the right response to all this injustice is to reduce sentences across the board—including by releasing hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Black and Hispanic, now incarcerated for violent offenses—and to work for systemic change, rather than to seek compensatory vengeance when the defendants are white.
I recognize my criticism of the sentences in the Arbery case may not be popular. But it is not unprecedented. Last June, amid reactions to the sentencing of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin to 22.5 years for the murder of George Floyd, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor—a professor of African American studies at Princeton who has written extensively about racial inequality, Black politics, and abolitionist movements—tweeted what she acknowledged was an “unpopular post.” “Only in America,” she wrote, “could anyone think that a prison sentence for more than twenty years is not harsh enough. . . . I hope that we can move beyond the relentless desire for punishment.”
Because I share that hope, I believe we must speak out against extreme sentences even when doing so is unpopular. Condoning these sentences, much less endorsing them, has insidious consequences. It nurses the myth that punishment equals justice. It reinforces the power of law-and-order ideology and buttresses the carceral state, justifying investment in the largest prison-industrial complex in the world. It occludes the social roots of criminal behavior, accepting the terms of a myopic liberalism that sees only individual responsibility. It lends credence to the discredited notion that punishment deters—and that harsher punishment deters even more. It denies the reality that people change. And it blunts demands for the sort of social transformation that would radically revise the place of prisons and policing in American life. In fact, by doing all these things, it ultimately only rewards wealth and whiteness.
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