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Arbery killers withdraw guilty pleas in hate crimes case

After a judge rejected a plea deal that would have allowed two of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers to serve the first three decades of their prison sentences in federal custody, the father and son withdrew their offer to plead guilty and will instead appear in court on hate crimes charges next week.

ATLANTA (CN) — The Georgia man convicted of murder for shooting Ahmaud Arbery joined his father Friday in withdrawing his guilty plea to federal hate crimes charges over the 25-year-old Black man’s death after a judge rejected the terms of a plea deal reached with prosecutors earlier this week.

Travis McMichael indicated he would not plead guilty during a Friday hearing after a federal judge on Monday rejected a deal that would have allowed him to spend the first 30 years of his life sentence in federal prison rather than a state facility, where conditions are often harsher, in exchange for the admission that he targeted Arbery because he was Black.

His father, Gregory McMichael, withdrew his agreement to plead guilty in a court filing late Thursday evening.

The proposed plea deal, which was filed Sunday evening, was rejected during a Monday hearing by U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood after members of the Arbery family made statements in court expressing their strong disapproval.

Urging the judge not to "concede to [the McMichaels'] preferred conditions of confinement," Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said the agreement would give her son's killers "one last chance to spit in my face."

Wood, a George W. Bush appointee, ruled that she was "not comfortable" accepting the terms of the plea agreement "given the unique circumstances of this case and my desire to hear from all concerned regarding sentencing before I pronounce a sentence."

The McMichaels, along with their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, will head to trial on Monday to face charges including attempted kidnapping and interference with rights.

There was no plea deal in place for Bryan, who was sentenced in January to life in prison with the possibility of parole for his felony murder conviction.

Bryan filmed the McMichaels on Feb. 23, 2020 as they chased Arbery in their pickup truck. He captured the moment Travis McMichael fired three shotgun blasts at Arbery, hitting him twice and killing him in the street.

Although jurors in the 13-day state murder trial did not hear evidence that the McMichaels and Bryan, who are all white, were motivated by racial animus when they pursued and shot Arbery, federal prosecutors have indicated that they will introduce that evidence at the upcoming trial.

During Monday’s hearing, prosecutor Tara Lyons argued that the younger McMichael “associated Black people with criminality for years and harbored resentment toward African-American people.”

Lyons said that although Travis McMichael did not belong to any hate groups and did not begin the day of the shooting seeking to carry out an act of violence against a Black person, “he made assumptions about Mr. Arbery that he would not have made if Ahmaud Arbery had been white.”

Specific evidence of the McMichaels’ racial animus has been kept under seal pending jury selection, but it is likely that the evidence heard by the jury will include Travis McMichael’s text messages and social media posts. Lyons also mentioned evidence photos showing that Travis McMichael’s truck had a license plate which featured the Confederate flag.

FBI Special Agent Skylar Barnes testified Monday that a search of Travis McMichael’s phone and social media accounts showed “frequent use of racial slurs” in reference to Black people.

Barnes said the younger McMichael referred to Black people as “monkey, savages and niggers.”

At a June 2020 pretrial hearing, Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent Richard Dial testified that Bryan told him Travis McMichael called Arbery a “fucking nigger” as he stood over the dying man’s body.

Jury selection will begin in the federal trial Monday morning.

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