Judge rejects plea agreement in hate crimes case over Arbery murder

Travis McMichael, left, and his father Greg

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

Travis McMichael, left, and his father Greg

A federal judge on Monday rejected a plea agreement for the man found guilty of murdering Ahmaud Arbery just one week before he is to stand trial for federal hate crimes.

During a court hearing in Brunswick, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood accepted a guilty plea by Travis McMichael to a hate crimes charge. The agreement would have locked her in to sentencing McMichael and his father, who was supposed to plead guilty next, to 30 years in federal custody.

But after hearing pleas from Arbery’s family, Wood refused to accept the terms of punishment. She then gave Travis McMichael and his father Greg until Friday to decide whether to continue with their guilty pleas or stand trial, set for next Monday.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said the family wanted no part of the plea deal.

“Granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement will defeat me,” Cooper-Jones told Wood. “It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son.”

If the McMichaels agree to go forward with their guilty pleas, Wood would be able to fashion the punishment she sees fit. As for the recommended 30 years, she said, “It could be more. It could be less. It could be that.”

In November, the McMichaels and William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted of Arbery’s murder. The McMichaels were sentenced to life in state prison without the possibility of parole; Bryan got life with parole.

The plea deal would allow the McMichaels to spend their first 24 years in custody — getting some time shaved off for good behavior — in federal prison. Then, they would be transferred into the state prison system.

Travis McMichael would be about 60 years old at that time, his father 90 years old.

Atlanta defense attorney Jack Martin said it’s understandable the McMichaels would prefer federal custody because Greg McMichael is a former law enforcement officer.

Ex-officers “could be more vulnerable to being attacked in state custody,” Martin said. “Federal custody can give them a little more protection.”

Jason Sheffield, who represented Travis McMichael in the state trial, pushed back on any assertion that spending time in a federal prison is a good deal. “Anybody who tries to convince the public that one is better than the other or one is cushier than the other has no idea what it’s like to serve time in prison,” he said.

By pleading guilty to one count of their federal indictment, the McMichaels would have acknowledged targeting Arbery because he was Black.

Laying out the government’s case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons noted that during the five-minute chase, the unarmed Arbery was running with his hands empty and in plain view.

“Travis McMichael did not belong to any hate groups and did not set out on Feb. 23, 2020, to carry out an act of violence against an African-American person,” Lyons said. “But he had made assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery that he would not have made if Ahmaud Arbery had been white.”

The prosecutor said McMichael had “for years,” through social media posts and in text messages, “associated Black skin with criminality and had harbored resentment toward African-American people.” McMichael had also “expressed a desire to see African-American people, particularly those he viewed as criminals, harmed or killed.”

Without those beliefs, Lyons said, McMichael “would not have armed himself and chased down an African-American man he only assumed to be a criminal.”

Arbery’s relatives pleaded with Wood to reject the plea agreement. Cooper-Jones, referring to Travis McMichael’s testimony at the state court trial, said she’d heard enough.

“His smug, detached testimony echoed in my head through the new year,” she said. “Believe me, I’ve heard enough from these men. ... It is not fair to take away the victory that I’ve prayed and I’ve fought for. It is not right, and it is not just. It is wrong.”

Travis McMichael (left), his father Gregory McMichael and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan were convicted of Arbery's murder in November.

Credit: Body camera photos

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Credit: Body camera photos

Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, agreed and turned his attention to Travis McMichael.

“This man here hated Black people so much he didn’t want to be around them,” Arbery said. “What’s that for? Black people aren’t going nowhere. We’re going to be here. God created us to be here on this earth. So the world can do without you.”

He has said he has no doubt his son’s murder was racially motivated and that he was looking forward to evidence of racism being introduced in the upcoming hate crimes trial. Such evidence was largely avoided by the Cobb County prosecutors in the state case last year as they sought to convince a Glynn County jury of 11 white people and one Black man to return guilty verdicts for all three defendants.

”Anybody with some common sense can see this was a racial hate crime. The facts are there,” Marcus Arbery told the AJC last week. “The whole world saw what happened.”

One of the most disturbing things about the video, he said, was the way Travis McMichael turned and walked away as Arbery lay dying in the road. “He showed no remorse for it,” Marcus Arbery said. “He didn’t try to help him or nothing.”

Two weeks ago, Lyons told Wood, lawyers for the Arberys told federal prosecutors the family would not oppose a plea agreement. Lyons said she now realizes that was not an accurate representation.

But she still stood by the deal, saying “it powerfully advances the larger interests of justice.” And, she added, the guilty pleas entered by the McMichaels could be used against them if their state murder convictions are overturned on appeal.

“I’m not up here blaming the family, your honor,” Lyons said.

In a statement, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said prosecutors consulted with the attorneys for Arbery’s family before extending the plea deal to the McMichaels.

“The Justice Department entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it,” Clarke said. “We respect the court’s decision to not accept the sentencing terms of the proposed plea and to continue the hearing until Friday.”

What happens next:

Greg and Travis McMichael have until the end of the week to decide whether to enter guilty pleas or proceed with the federal hate crimes trial.

Prosecutors didn’t mention a plea agreement for Bryan at Monday’s hearing. Lee Merritt, an attorney representing Arbery’s mother, said he believes Bryan will stand trial next week.

The judge largely expanded the jury pool for the upcoming trial, sending summonses to an estimated 1,000 people from throughout the Southern District of Georgia’s 43-county jurisdiction.