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Federal judge rejects plea deal in hate crimes case against Arbery killers

An attorney for Ahmaud Arbery's family spoke out against the deal that would have allowed the father and son convicted of the 25-year-old's slaying to serve their time in a safer, less crowded federal prison.

(CN) — A Georgia federal judge on Monday rejected a plea agreement reached by prosecutors with the father and son convicted of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder after several of the victim’s family members argued passionately against the deal, which would have allowed the men to avoid trial on federal hate crimes charges.

Greg McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, had offered to plead guilty and admit that they targeted Arbery because he was Black. In exchange, they would have been allowed to serve the first 30 years of their life sentences in federal custody rather than in state prison, where conditions are often harsher.

The sentences would have run concurrently with life sentences handed down earlier this month for their convictions on state charges, including murder.

But U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ruled from the bench Monday afternoon that she was uncomfortable accepting the terms of the proposed plea agreements after hearing objections raised by Arbery’s family members. The judge reached her decision after the younger McMichael entered a guilty plea.

There has not yet been any mention of a plea deal with William “Roddie” Bryan, who filmed the McMichaels chasing Arbery in their pickup truck and captured the moment Travis McMichael fatally shot the 25-year-old jogger in the street. Bryan has been sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole.

If the McMichaels choose to move forward with their guilty pleas, Wood would be able to sentence them as she sees fit.

“In this case it is appropriate to hear at sentencing from all concerned, including the victim’s family, before deciding on what punishment best promotes all of the factors set forth in our federal sentencing statute,” Wood said.

Both Greg and Travis McMichael have until Friday to decide whether to continue to plead guilty or go to trial. Jury selection is scheduled to begin on Monday, Feb. 7.

Prosecutor Tara Lyons said on Monday that the Arbery family previously told federal officials that they supported the deal but appeared to have changed their minds.

In a statement released on his Twitter account, Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said the Department of Justice had “betrayed” the Arbery family’s trust by moving forward with the plea agreements.

“This proposed plea is a huge accommodation to the men who hunted down and murdered Ahmaud Arbery,” the statement says. “The family is devastated at this development, their wishes are being completely ignored and they do not consent to these accommodations.”

During the hearing Monday afternoon, Cooper-Jones said she did not want to see the court “concede to [the McMichaels’] preferred conditions of confinement.”

“It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son,” Cooper-Jones said. “It is not fair to take away the victory that I prayed and I fought for. It is not right.”

Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, told Wood that he agreed with Cooper-Jones, adding, “What they did to our son is too devastating.”

During the state trial in Glynn County Superior Court, attorneys for the McMichaels and Bryan argued that the men were authorized to chase Arbery through their neighborhood because they suspected him of being a burglar. There was no evidence presented at trial that Arbery ever stole anything.

Video of the February 2020 shooting leaked online in May that year and resulted in a national outcry, protests and the partial repeal of Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law. The Georgia Legislature also passed a new hate crimes statute enhancing sentences for offenders accused of targeting victims based on their race, gender, disability or sexual orientation.

Although prosecutors in the state trial did not present evidence that the McMichaels and Bryan, who are all white, were motivated by racial animus when they pursued and shot Arbery, federal prosecutors indicated that they would introduce that evidence at the upcoming trial.

Lyons said Monday that although Travis McMichael did not belong to any hate groups on the day of the shooting or begin the day intending to commit a crime, “he had made assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery that he would not have made if Ahmaud Arbery had been white.”

The evidence at trial will likely include text messages, social media posts and testimony from a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent that Travis McMichael used a racist slur to refer to Arbery.

FBI Special Agent Skylar Barnes said during Monday’s hearing that text messages and social media posts created by Travis McMichael showed that he referred to Black people as “monkeys, savages and niggers.”

“[Travis McMichael] associated African-Americans with crimes… and expressed the desire for crimes to be committed against African-Americans,” Barnes said.

Specific evidence of the McMichaels’ racial animus was not discussed during the hearing and has been kept under seal.

During a November 2020 bond hearing, Travis McMichaels’ friend Zachary Langford testified that Travis wrote a text message referring to shooting “a crackhead coon with gold teeth.”

At a June 2020 pretrial hearing, GBI agent Richard Dial testified that Bryan told him Travis McMichael called Arbery a “fucking nigger” as he stood over Arbery’s body.

The McMichaels are expected back in court on Friday.

Follow @KaylaGoggin_CNS
Categories / Civil Rights, Criminal, Trials

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