A judge on Monday rejected a plea deal prosecutors had reached with two of three White men facing federal hate-crime charges in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, casting uncertainty over a trial scheduled to begin next week.
But Arbery’s family asked the judge Monday to block the deal, which would have allowed the McMichaels to serve the first 30 years of their sentences in federal rather than state custody. A lawyer for Arbery’s mother had denounced the agreements as a “back room” arrangement that would have allowed the McMichaels to serve their sentences in better prison conditions.
“Granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement will defeat me,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said in court. “It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son.”
U.S. District Judge Lisa Wood accepted Travis McMichael’s guilty plea Monday but said she could not guarantee the terms of the agreement and wanted to hear from “all concerned” before signing off on sentencing. Because of that, Wood said, the younger McMichael can change his mind. Lawyers for both McMichaels said they needed more time before deciding whether to continue with guilty pleas.
The men were expected to admit to using force or the threat of force to “injure, intimidate and interfere” with Arbery because of his race as he used public streets on Feb. 23, 2020. The father-son pair grabbed guns and, along with their neighbor Bryan, chased Arbery in their pickup truck before Travis McMichael fatally shot Arbery.
Bryan, the only one of the three granted the possibility of parole, was not mentioned in notices of plea deals filed Sunday. He also faces hate-crime charges.
The McMichaels’ defense last year centered on claims that they suspected Arbery of break-ins and thefts, and Travis McMichael affirmed Monday that he would admit that he made assumptions about Arbery because of his race. Prosecutors said they planned to dismiss other federal charges.
Travis McMichael is “publicly confessing to the world that this crime would not have happened had Ahmaud Arbery not been Black,” prosecutor Tara Lyons said just before the judge scrapped the deal. She said that attorneys for Arbery’s parents previously indicated they would not oppose a plea deal but that on Sunday, after several meetings, “it was apparent that that was not accurate.”
She acknowledged the Arbery family’s disappointment in a justice system already heavily criticized for its handling of Arbery’s death, which was followed by more than two months without arrests in 2020.
“I personally understand every expression of anger and distrust that the Arbery family feels with law enforcement and the justice system,” Lyons said. “I have no doubt if my son were chased down and shot like an animal, because of the color of his skin, I would feel the same.”
In a statement Monday evening, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke reiterated that the Justice Department “entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it” and added that officials respect the judge’s decision.
A trial for the McMichaels and Bryan is still scheduled to begin with jury selection Feb. 7.
Lawyers for the defendants had previously argued that the three men pursued Arbery in the belief that he was behind neighborhood break-ins, not because of his race. But prosecutors pointed to texts and social media posts as evidence of racism. Bryan, who recorded the fatal confrontation on his phone, told investigators that Travis McMichael used the n-word after shooting Arbery, a claim the younger McMichael’s attorneys denied.
On Monday, prosecutors and law enforcement witnesses said that Travis McMichael’s social media and messages showed “frequent use” of racial slurs, including using the n-word and calling African Americans “monkeys” and “savages.” A federal investigator said there was evidence that the younger McMichael “expressed a desire for crimes to be committed against African Americans” and that he associated them with crime.
Authorities noted that the license plate on the McMichaels’ truck bore an old Georgia flag with the Confederate battle emblem.
Travis McMichael also used a racial slur in a text message while referring to a “crackhead” with “gold teeth,” prosecutors have said, and Bryan’s attorney sought in a court filing to bar testimony “that would suggest Bryan did not approve of his adopted daughter dating an African American man,” among other evidence.
Officials did not seek to show a hateful motive in November’s trial. After the McMichaels and Bryan were sentenced in January, attorneys for Arbery’s family said their clients wished to see the federal trial go forward to explicitly confront the role that racism played in the defendants’ actions.
“Federal prison is a country club when compared to state prison,” Lee Merritt, a lawyer for Arbery’s mother, tweeted Monday. “Federal prisons are less populated, better funded and generally more accommodating than state prisons.”
He said he worked to voice the family’s opposition to the plea deal right after learning that it would transfer the McMichaels to federal detention.
Authorities’ handling of Arbery’s killing came under intense scrutiny in 2020 and last year, raising familiar concerns about unequal treatment of Black Americans by police and prosecutors. The first district attorney to handle the case, Jackie Johnson, was indicted in September on allegations that she violated her oath of office and obstructed police in their investigation of Arbery’s killing. She had previously recused herself from the case because Gregory McMichael used to be an investigator in her office.
The federal hate-crime indictment accuses the defendants of interfering with Arbery’s rights. It said the McMichaels cut off Arbery’s route and threatened him with firearms in a chase that Bryan eventually joined, using his truck to block Arbery’s path as well. It also alleged that all of the defendants sought to unlawfully trap Arbery and that the McMichaels brandished firearms, with Travis McMichael firing his shotgun.
Arbery was unarmed.
“During the entire chase, Ahmaud Arbery never spoke a word to the defendant or his father,” Lyons said Monday. “He never made a threatening sound or gesture. Rather, he repeatedly tried to run away from the McMichaels.”
Amy Lee Copeland, who represents Travis McMichael in the federal case, said Monday that she does not comment on pending cases. A.J. Balbo, who represents Gregory McMichael, said the same.
When the indictment was filed in April, an attorney for Travis McMichael, Bob Rubin, told The Washington Post, “We are deeply disappointed that the Justice Department bought the false narrative that the media and state prosecutors have promulgated.” Frank Hogue, an attorney for Gregory McMichael, said at the time that Arbery’s race was “incidental” and that the defendants chased him because of their suspicions that he committed burglaries, after seeing him at an under-construction house and hearing about thefts.
Officials said they found no stolen items on Arbery. He was just jogging, Arbery’s family said. Before the shooting, police told the McMichaels that Arbery had not seemed to take anything when he walked through the unsecured building.
Kevin Gough, who represents Bryan, also expressed disappointment at the Justice Department’s decision to prosecute his client. Another lawyer representing Bryan in the federal case did not respond to an inquiry.
Explaining his decision to grant Bryan the possibility of parole in January, Judge Timothy Walmsley said Bryan showed that he “had grave concerns that what had occurred should not have occurred,” while the McMichaels “turned their backs” and “walked away” as Arbery bled out on the street.
Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.
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