I am writing this on January 7th, the day after Epiphany. It was the day of sentencing in the trial of the convicted killers of Ahmaud Arbery.
Having written extensively throughout the trial, it seems like the right thing to do in bringing the story to its conclusion.
I went to the courthouse this morning for a prayer vigil held by the clergy of Glynn County. I then went and watched the sentencing process on an online feed from the courtroom.
It was wrenching to hear the mother and father of this 25-year-old man who was killed on Feb. 23, 2020. February 23 sticks in my mind because it was my ordination date to the diaconate, St. Polycarp’s feast day. He’s my kind of martyr….he waited to get into his 90s before getting killed as a martyr for the faith. And February 23rd is the date on which my mother died. So the 23rd of February is highly valenced in my soul.
As you would imagine, both the father and mother expressed a deep love for their boy, a young man with so much promise. They fought through emotions to express themselves to the court and to the defendants they faced as to the cost of this act of chasing down their son who was running through the neighborhood, and then shooting him with three shotgun blasts, killing him on this neighborhood street. I can not begin to imagine their pain, though I tried my best to empathize with those feelings.
After they had expressed their pain, it was time for the attorneys of the three defendants to offer their best shot in bringing sympathy for their situations. I tried hard to listen to these attorneys who did their best to defend these three men in their trial, and who now faced the Herculean task of squeezing some understanding as to why they should not be punished to the fullest extent of the law for their deed of murder. I was surprised at my own upwelling of feelings for these three. Their lives are basically finished due to some bad decisions made on a winter’s day, “driveway decisions” is how the prosecutor described it. I think of the cultural prompts that all three of these guys had been receiving through most of their lives. The scary privilege that sometimes goes with law enforcement folks who assume they are still “the law” even when they are no longer in that role. What made them think that running down this young man in a truck was the right thing to do? And for that lapse in judgment, Ahmaud’s life was taken away.
As the statements concluded, Judge Timothy Walmsley took a moment to pause before he rendered his judgment. He prefaced his sentencing with some thoughtful remarks as to how he saw this case, this murder. He empathized with Ahmaud’s parents, noting the pathos in the loss of this promising young man’s life. Throughout the weeks, I was struck by the judge’s appropriate professionalism in managing this high-profile trial. But he seemed to yield to the moment, amazingly human in the moment just before pronouncing judgment.
Judge Walmsley almost seemed pastoral in his demeanor as he made a point to speak to this particular time in the community’s life. Here, I am thinking of the community in concentric rings, extending from the town of Brunswick, to the State of Georgia, to our divided nation, to our fractured world.
The judge framed his statement in an unconventional move, something that reminded me…of me, that is, something crazy that I might do from the pulpit to drive a point home.
He said, ” I do want to put that time period in context, and the only way I could think to do so- it may be a little theatrical, but I think it’s appropriate. I want us all to get a concept of time. So what I am going to do, I’m going to sit silently for one minute.” And so we sat in silence for one seemingly endless minute.
The judge clarified that this one minute period of silence was only a fraction of the five minutes that Ahmaud was running away from his pursuers, chasing him down with pickup trucks, with a pistol and shotgun, yelling threats at the young man, to “blow his f***ing head off”. The silence was deafening, and seemed to go on forever, giving those in the courtroom an experiential moment of empathy.
When the minute ended, the judge said slowly, “When I thought about this, I thought of a lot of different angles, and kept thinking back to the terror that must have been in the mind of the young man running through Satilla Shores.” This is a grand example of emotional intelligence, namely an empathetic moment of perspective-taking.
Judge Walmsley went on, “I read somewhere and I don’t remember where it was, that at a minimum, Ahmaud Arbery’s death should force us to consider expanding our definition of what a ‘neighbor’ may be and how we treat them. I argue that maybe a neighbor is more than the people who own property around your house. I also believe that assuming the worst in others, we show our worst character. Assuming the best in others is always the best course of action.”
The judge then rendered his verdict, sentencing the shooter and the driver, son and father, to life without the possibility of parole. The third defendant, the driver of another truck who served as the camera operator, was also sentenced to life, but with the possibility of parole.
The judge, as did the community of Glynn, tried to redeem to loss of life that took place when these killers took the law into their own hands. Trying to wrestle a lesson out of this tragedy, the judge sounded like a teacher of mine I once heard on the side of a mountain, talking about loving your neighbor like you would love your own self, that is, seeing the other, the neighbor, as connected to you.
After the trial, there was the ubiquitous press conference in front of the courthouse. Various folks spoke, but my attention was on the parents who had sat through repeated images of their son being gunned down with three shotgun blasts, watching him fall to the pavement, seeing his body on the asphalt oozing the lifeblood. They had to sit through the black and white photos from the morgue exam table. Through it all, they showed dignity and restraint, but with an insistent demand for justice for their son. In front of this crowd gathered in support, they said they finally got it, justice, that is.
I stood to the side, watching, listening. My new friend, Ms. Annie Polite, stood beside me. She had been there every day from the beginning. An 87 year-old black woman, a native of Brunswick who has spent her professional career in New York City, had moved back to her hometown. When I asked her, she said she was an activist, with a particular passion for education. But for these long weeks, she was here at the courthouse, usually the first one to begin the chant, “Justice for Ahmaud!”. She didn’t have a megaphone. She didn’t need one.
I must confess that I was initially bothered by the jubilation in the crowd. My own mood was somber, with the deep sense of pathos for a young life stilled by the worn-out Southern gothic story of a black man chased down by rednecks in a pick up truck. I am tired of this story. I’ve heard it too many times.
But then, I looked to the courthouse steps and caught sight of a robed black minister with doctoral chevrons down his sleeves. He was clapping his hands, doing a dance that would rival my man James Brown. His face was beaming with a smile that would light up the night, as he looked heavenward, saying repeatedly, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you, Jesus.”
That was then I got it. Why jubilation is in order, “meet and right so to do” as we old Anglicans say. This represented a reversal. Folks who had been downtrodden, denied their rights under the law, made to feel like second class citizens by a culture that pushed them down and to the back of the bus….this verdict was a symbol of America paying up on a promise made too many years ago, a promise too long forgotten. I know I only caught a bit of the joy, but it was powerful stuff. Enough to bring a smile to my face, and perhaps restore my hope in this country that seems to be foundering on the old rocks of denial of our democratic principles and our original sin of slavery.
In that moment, as the sun was setting to the left, over the East River, I was able to join Ms. Annie, propped up on her red rocker walker, in chanting that mantra of both demand and hope: Justice for Ahmaud. Justice for Ahmaud.
Post Note: To listen to the actual judge’s voice, Go to the podcast, Buried Truth by my friend, Hank Klibanoff, in the third season, and the most recent post, Killers Sentenced. Available at most podcasting sites. https://www.wabe.org/episode/killers-sentenced/