BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Travis McMichael on Friday withdrew his plea admitting guilt to federal hate crimes charges in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, opting instead to stand trial with his father after a deal with prosecutors fell apart.
In court Monday, Travis McMichael, 36, pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal with prosecutors who said he “harbored resentment toward African American people,” and his father, Greg McMichael, 66, was expected to do the same. The agreement would have allowed the men to serve the first 30 years of their sentences in federal rather than state custody. But Arbery’s family denounced the arrangement, saying it offered the McMichaels better prison conditions.
Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the plea deal and told the defendants they could reconsider their positions ahead of the federal trial set to begin Monday.
Lawyers for the defendants argued during their state murder trial in November that the three men pursued Arbery in the belief that he was behind neighborhood break-ins, not because of his race. But prosecutors have said social media posts and texts show the defendants’ racism. Bryan, who recorded the fatal confrontation on his phone, also told investigators that Travis McMichael used the n-word after shooting Arbery, a claim the younger McMichael’s attorneys denied.
Authorities said this week that Travis McMichael frequently used the n-word, had “expressed a desire for crimes to be committed against African Americans” and referred to Black people as “monkeys,” “savages” and other slurs.
The McMichaels and Bryan chased Arbery in pickup trucks through their coastal Georgia neighborhood for five minutes, prosecutors said, before Travis McMichael fatally shot Arbery, who was unarmed. They were convicted of murder, and a judge in January sentenced them to life in prison — Georgia law prescribed no less — with no possibility of parole for the McMichaels.
In federal court, the McMichaels and Bryan are accused of using “force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race,” among other charges. All three men pleaded not guilty last spring.
As the federal trial neared, prosecutors reached a deal with the McMichaels: The pair would plead guilty and serve a 30-year sentence in federal prison before returning to state custody. But days after the plea deal was signed, Arbery’s family announced that they were vehemently opposed. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she did not need the McMichaels to validate what she and activists have been saying for nearly two years — that racism fueled her son’s murder.
“All they would have to do is stand up and say that they were motivated by hate, and then this court will concede to their preferred conditions of confinement,” Cooper-Jones said in court Monday. “I do not need to hear them say they were motivated by hate. That does me no good. It does my family no good.”
Seeking to save the deal, prosecutor Tara Lyons told the court Monday that the McMichaels’ agreement was significant. They were “admitting publicly in front of the nation that this offense was racially motivated,” she said.
She said prosecutors had turned down another deal early in January after meeting with the family and considering their wishes.
“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.”
Wood, the judge, said she could not guarantee the sentencing terms that prosecutors had outlined. She told the McMichaels that because she had rejected the deal, they could reconsider their pleas.
Carissa Byrne Hessick, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, said it is rare but not unprecedented for judges to block plea bargains.
“I think it’s noteworthy, and I think it’s also generally positive that the judge in this case said, ‘I need to hear the evidence, and I need to know what happened, so I can make a decision about what the appropriate sentence should be,' ” said Hessick, who has written a book critical of plea bargaining.
She expects that potential jurors screened next week will be asked whether they are aware of the failed plea deal and said she imagines the judge would agree to strike those people from the pool.
But many jurors familiar with Arbery’s killing and the outrage it sparked were ultimately deemed qualified for jury service in the November trial, after telling the judge they could set aside feelings and preconceived notions about the case.
At a minimum, Hessick said, jurors could get instructions not to consider the fact that Travis McMichael previously pleaded guilty and that his father was poised to follow suit. Amy Lee Copeland, the younger McMichael’s lawyer, noted Friday that her client’s admissions for the rejected deal cannot be used against him in court.
Selecting an impartial jury for such a well-known case could prove difficult. Potential jurors are drawn from across the Southern District of Georgia, which covers 43 counties, rather than only Glynn County, where Arbery was killed and where jurors were drawn for the state trial.
Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery Sr., gave a one-sentence statement outside the courtroom in Brunswick on Friday, saying the family is praying for justice. Clifford Jones — an attorney with the law firm of Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights lawyer representing the elder Arbery — said loved ones are hopeful for more convictions.
“This is the next step along a steep hill,” Jones said.
Lee Merritt, who represents Arbery’s mother, said in a statement Friday that Cooper-Jones will not be attending the federal trial. If the McMichaels and Bryan are acquitted, Merritt said, they will serve life sentences in Georgia just as Cooper-Jones wanted. He added: “It’s a win-win.”
Knowles reported from Washington.