SAVANNAH, Ga. – The father and son convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery have until Friday to decide their next steps after a federal judge rejected a plea deal Monday between prosecutors and Travis McMichael.
She said she would do the same for his father and gave both men time to decide if they still want to plead guilty without those deals in place.
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.
Under the now-rejected plea deal, Travis McMichael would have been spent the first 30 years of his sentence inside a federal prison, a possibility the Arbery family vehemently opposed.
“Mad as Hell! They’re trying to do some undercover stuff me and his mama did not know about,” Marcus Arbery Sr. said. “Talking about a plea deal we did not agree to. And like I said, Ahmaud is a kid you cannot replace. Do you know how valued Ahmaud was? To me, his mama, his brother his sister, his aunts?”
McMichael has already been sentenced to life in prison without parole imposed by a state court judge for the murder conviction. By pleading guilty to the hate crime charge, 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.
According to the Arbery family attorney, the deal was reached between federal prosecutors and the defendants behind their backs. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, spoke in court, telling the judge:
“Please listen to me. Granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son,” Cooper Jones said.
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.
We won’t know until the 11th hour whether one -- or three -- defendants will stand trial beginning Monday, when the first group of 50 potential jurors is still expected to report to the Federal Courthouse in Brunswick for the start of jury selection.
Attorney Gene Nichols, who is not affiliated with the case, gave insight as to what we could expect to see with Roddie Bryan— should the McMichaels withdraw their guilty pleas and go to trial.
“I don’t think there’s any question that William ‘Roddie’ Bryan is probably planning on testifying for the federal government in this case, and that’s why he has not been brought into these negotiations,” Nichols said. “I would suspect that one of the federal government’s key witnesses in this case is Roddie Bryan.”
A hearing is scheduled for Friday morning.
That’s when we expect to find out how the McMichaels will plead.
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.