BRUNSWICK, Ga. – The man convicted of murder for shooting Ahmaud Arbery withdrew his guilty plea on a federal hate crime charge Friday, electing to stand trial for a second time in the 2020 killing of a Black man that became part of a larger national reckoning over racial injustice.
Travis McMichael stood in federal court in Brunswick and said only: “I withdraw my plea.”
That reversed his plan to plead guilty in the federal case days after a U.S. District Court judge rejected terms of a plea deal between defense attorneys and prosecutors that was met with passionate objections by Arbery’s parents. McMichael’s father, Greg McMichael, backed down from a plan to plead guilty in a legal filing late Thursday.
“They really don’t have anything to lose by going to trial here,” said attorney Latoya Williams Shelton, who is not affiliated with the case.
U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said jury selection in the hate crimes trial will begin Monday.
COMPLETE COVERAGE: Ahmaud Arbery case
Arbery’s family was inside the courtroom for only about five minutes Friday morning, not leaving much time to react to the developments.
They said they are trusting that they will get a good jury, which was a concern during the state trial -- when a nearly all-white jury was chosen.
Around 1,000 questionnaires were sent out to potential jurors from Glynn and 42 other counties in Georgia.
Federal court documents say attorneys will only be able to see the potential juror number and where they are from.
“So that we’re also making decisions as it relates to this process, based on just the information that you have. Not, you know, the color of a person’s skin, not any of those other things, but just based on the information on a questionnaire that we have,” Williams Shelton said, adding that she thinks the selection process will go much faster than it did in state court.
Arbery’s family members didn’t have much to say except that they want 100% justice for Ahmaud. They said they didn’t want to make any comments on their personal views right now.
“They really don’t have anything to lose by going to trial here,” said Williams Shelton. “I think it’s additional closure for the family. This was a huge case. I’m sure his mom doesn’t care that they already got a life without parole sentence. She wants to hear them be convicted of a hate crime.”
The family’s attorneys say there’s no going back now.
“This is the same battle, just going further up the hill, and we haven’t gotten to the top yet,” said Clifford Jones with Ben Crump Law.
The McMichaels and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, were convicted of murder in a Georgia state court last fall and sentenced to life in prison. Georgia lacked a hate crimes law at the time of the killing. The U.S. Department of Justice had them indicted on charges that the three white men violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he was Black.
The McMichaels armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after spotting the 25-year-old man running past their home just outside the port city of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.
The father and son had planned to plead guilty to a hate crime charge after prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to propose a 30-year sentence that would include a request to transfer the McMichaels from Georgia’s state prison system to federal custody. The deal would have required the McMichaels to admit to racist motives and forfeit the right to appeal their federal sentence.
Wood rejected the deal Monday after Arbery’s parents argued that conditions in federal prison wouldn’t be as harsh. Wood said she ultimately denied the deal because it would have locked her into a specific sentence.
“I think the judge’s thought process was I haven’t heard anything. I haven’t heard any additional facts or evidence about this case. So I don’t know that a sentence of 30 years is appropriate,” Williams Shelton said.
Prosecutors asked the judge to approve the plea deals despite the objections from Arbery’s family. Prosecutor Tara Lyons said that attorneys for Arbery’s parents had told the U.S. Justice Department that the family wouldn’t object.
But Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother, said the slain man’s family had previously rejected the same terms and “no longer wanted to engage” with prosecutors, who “took that as a deferral.”
During the murder trial in state court, defense attorneys argued the McMichaels were justified in pursuing Arbery because they had a reasonable suspicion that he had committed crimes in their neighborhood. Travis McMichael testified that he opened fire with his shotgun after Arbery attacked him with fists and tried to grab the weapon.
During the federal trial, we’ll hear what we didn’t hear during the state trial. An investigator testified in state pre-trial hearings that the McMichaels’ neighbor, Bryan, heard Travis McMichael say racial slurs at Arbery after he shot him.
“I think in William ‘Roddie’ Bryan’s case, maybe he’s thinking, regardless of what the outcome is, whether it’s 30 years because I have a plea deal, or it’s 30 years because I went to trial, I already have life without parole. Do I want to enter into a deal where I have to tell everyone that I was motivated by hate when in reality, I was not? That could be his thought process,” Williams Shelton said.
All three men are being represented by federal public defenders.