SAVANNAH, Ga. – A federal judge rejected a plea agreement Monday that would have averted a hate crimes trial for the white man convicted of murder for fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery, whose parents angrily objected to the deal as unfair and unjust.
The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood came just hours after prosecutors gave notice that son and father Travis and Greg McMichael had agreed to plead guilty to hate crime charges that they chased, threatened and killed 25-year-old Arbery because he was Black.
But Travis McMichael’s sentencing hearing Monday afternoon turned emotional and contentious as federal prosecutors urged the judge to approve the deal even after Arbery’s parents pleaded passionately for her to deny it.
Travis McMichael would have received 30 years in federal prison to be served alongside the penalty of life in prison without parole imposed by a state court judge for the murder conviction. By pleading guilty, he would have given up the chance to appeal his federal sentence.
But Arbery’s family objected to a provision that sought to transfer Travis McMichael immediately to federal custody from state prison. Arbery’s parents argued that conditions in federal prison wouldn’t be as tough for the McMichaels.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she felt strongly that Travis McMichael should serve his entire sentence in a Georgia state prison.
“Please listen to me,” Cooper-Jones told the judge. “Granting these men their preferred choice of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face.”
News4JAX spoke with attorney Gene Nichols, who is not affiliated with the case.
“Typically speaking, most people would say a state prison system is going to be, I guess, less kind to a defendant—somewhere a defendant doesn’t want to be compared to federal prison,” Nichols explained.
Wood said she was rejecting the deal because its terms would have locked her into a specific sentence. She said the Arbery family should have a say at sentencing in whatever punishment is ultimately given.
Now the question is whether Travis McMichael will withdraw the guilty plea he entered Monday, and whether Greg McMichael, who had been offered the same deal the judge denied, will still plead guilty as planned. The judge gave them both until Friday to return to the federal courthouse in Brunswick and give their answer.
“Both of the McMichaels are going to now have the opportunity to say, do we in essence give ourselves up to the court and let the court figure whatever is appropriate, or do we want to go to trial?” Nichols said.
The McMichaels armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after they spotted him running in their neighborhood outside the port city of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.
A national outcry erupted when the graphic video leaked online two months later. Georgia was one of just four U.S. states without a hate crimes law at the time. Legislators quickly approved one, but it came too late for state hate crime charges in Arbery’s killing.
Despite being convicted of murder in a Georgia state court trial last November, the McMichaels and Bryan still face federal hate crimes charges that accuse them of violating Arbery’s civil rights and targeting him because he was Black.
Travis McMichael told the judge in a loud, clear voice Monday that he was willing to plead guilty to killing Arbery out of racial animosity.
Prosecutor Tara Lyons asked the judge to set aside the Arbery family’s misgivings about the deal, saying Travis McMichael’s admission would send a powerful message.
“He is pleading guilty to a federal hate crime and publicly confessing to the world that this crime would not have happened had Ahmaud Arbery not been Black,” Lyons said.
Lyons said she understood the Arbery family’s anger and distrust of the criminal justice system. But federal prosecutors said they had consulted with attorneys for Arbery’s parents before signing off on any deals.
“The Justice Department entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement.
Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother, said that was misleading. He told reporters outside the courthouse that the family had previously rejected an identical plea deal proposed by prosecutors.
“The family no longer wanted to engage them concerning that point,” Merritt said. “They had had their answer. They (federal prosecutors) took that as a deferral.”
No notices have been filed in court of a plea deal for Bryan. For now, he appears to be headed to trial next week — with or without the McMichaels, depending on whether they choose to follow through with their guilty pleas.
Wood continued preparations for trial proceedings, saying she planned to summon the first 50 potential jurors to the courthouse on Feb. 7 for questioning on whether they can serve as fair, unbiased jurors in such a highly publicized case.
During the state trial in Glynn County Superior Court, the defense argued that the white men had authority to chase Arbery because they reasonably suspected he had been committing crimes in their neighborhood. Travis McMichael testified he opened fire only after Arbery attacked him with fists and tried to grab his shotgun.
The federal judge ordered that a jury pool be chosen from throughout the Southern District of Georgia, which covers 43 counties, to improve odds of seating a fair and unbiased jury.