Travis McMichael withdraws guilty plea in Arbery hate crimes case

Federal trial set to begin Monday for all 3 defendants

The man who fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery withdrew his guilty plea in his federal hate crimes case Friday morning, setting the stage for a second high-profile trial in which prosecutors are expected to argue the 25-year-old’s killing was motivated by racism.

Travis McMichael, his father Greg and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan are set to stand trial Monday.

The McMichaels were convicted of murder in November in a state trial in Brunswick and sentenced last month to life in prison without the possibility of parole. Bryan, who filmed the cellphone video of Arbery collapsing in the street from two shotgun blasts, was given a life sentence with the possibility of parole.

Separately, the three were also indicted on federal charges accusing them of violating Arbery’s civil rights and targeting him because of his race.

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

The father and son had reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors that would have avoided a second trial in Arbery’s killing. In exchange, they hoped to serve the first 30 years of their life sentences in federal custody. But U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the plea agreement Monday after an emotional hearing in which Arbery’s family said it never agreed to the deal.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she wants her son’s killers to serve their life sentences in state prison, where conditions are tougher.

After refusing to accept the terms of punishment, Wood gave the McMichaels until Friday to decide whether to continue with their guilty pleas and let her decide their punishment or stand trial. Greg McMichael, a former police officer and investigator with the local district attorney’s office, withdrew his plea Thursday evening.

His son followed suit at his hearing Friday.

“They weren’t going to get what they wanted, which was to spend most of their sentence, if not all of their sentence, in federal custody,” said attorney Page Pate, who has a practice in downtown Brunswick. “It was never going to happen.”

Because the defendants were convicted in state court first, he said they will likely end up serving their sentences in state custody. Pate, who regularly defends clients in Judge Wood’s courtroom, said she isn’t a fan of binding pleas.

He also noted the “dramatic difference” in the conditions of state prisons compared with federal penitentiaries.

“I just left a state prison and the conditions there are so much worse than federal custody,” he said. “The guard-to-inmate ratio is horrible ... and with this type of a conviction in this type of a case, they’re not going to be popular inmates.”

According to the Department of Justice, a 2018 state law allows the Georgia Department of Corrections to transfer an inmate into federal custody “if it is determined that the custody, care, treatment, training or rehabilitation of the inmate has not been adequate or in the best interest of the inmate or his fellow inmates.”

The McMichaels contended they grabbed their guns, jumped in Travis’ truck and chased the fleeing Arbery because they suspected him of burglarizing a vacant home in their Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside Brunswick. Arbery was seen walking around the home on at least five occasions in the months leading up to the Feb. 23, 2020, shooting, but there is no evidence he stole anything.

Credit: Surveillance photo

Credit: Surveillance photo

His killing led to two major changes in state law: The General Assembly largely repealed Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law and passed a hate crimes statute enhancing sentences for those accused of targeting someone because of their race, gender or sexual orientation.

Bryan’s video of the shooting led to widespread demonstrations when the footage became public two months later. Glynn County police never made an arrest in the case, and the McMichaels were charged by the GBI 74 days after Arbery’s death.

Federal prosecutors will likely introduce as evidence text messages, social media posts and previous comments made by the defendants pointing toward racial animus. Such evidence could include Bryan’s statement to the GBI that Travis McMichael used a racial slur while standing over the dying Arbery in the street.

At a June 2020 pretrial hearing in the state’s murder case, GBI agent Richard Dial testified that Bryan said he heard Travis McMichael say “(expletive) n-word” after shooting Arbery.

And FBI special agent Skylar Barnes said Monday that the younger McMichael regularly used racial epithets when referring to Black people on social media and in text messages.

Laying out the government’s case, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons said Travis McMichael did not set out that day “to carry out an act of violence against an African-American person.”

“But he had made assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery that he would not have made if Ahmaud Arbery had been white,” she said.

Racial evidence was largely avoided by Cobb County prosecutors in last year’s trial 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. Arbery’s family has said it looks forward to seeing more of that evidence come out in this trial.

“Anybody with some common sense can see this was a racial hate crime. The facts are there,” Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery Sr., recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “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.

Arbery’s father said he plans to be in court for every moment of the upcoming trial. “As long as the good Lord gives me breath, I’m gonna be there to see those three men get everything they deserve,” Marcus Arbery said.

Court administrators expanded the pool of potential jurors in preparation for the trial, mailing an estimated 1,000 summonses to residents throughout the Southern District of Georgia’s 43-county jurisdiction.

Trial consultant Jill Huntley Taylor said like last year’s state case, she expects attorneys will be hard-pressed finding potential jurors who haven’t already formed opinions about the defendants.

“I expect more of the same. I guess that’s why they cast a wider net here, so they can hopefully find some people to sit on the jury who at least will say that they can be fair and impartial,” she said. “It’s a challenge for both sides in terms of finding people who haven’t already formed an opinion.”

Pete Theodocion, Bryan’s attorney, declined to say whether federal prosecutors approached his client with a plea offer. He said Bryan is prepared to stand trial on the federal charges next week.

The Justice Department declined to comment on the McMichaels’ plea withdrawals.