By RUSS BYNUM
BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — A federal judge on Monday threw out a plea deal that would have avoided a hate crimes trial for the white man convicted of murder for fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery, whose parents angrily objected to the agreement as unfair and unfair.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood’s decision came just hours after prosecutors announced that son and father Travis and Greg McMichael had agreed to plead guilty to the hate crime charges they had been pursuing. , threatened and killed Arbery, 25, because he was black.
But Travis McMichael’s sentencing hearing on Monday afternoon turned emotional and contentious as federal prosecutors urged the judge to approve the deal even after Arbery’s parents implored her passionately to deny.
Travis McMichael would have received 30 years in federal prison to serve in addition to the life sentence without parole imposed by a state court judge for the murder conviction. By pleading guilty, he would have given up appealing his federal sentence.
But Arbery’s family objected to a provision that sought to immediately transfer Travis McMichael to federal custody at the state prison. Arbery’s parents argued that conditions in a federal prison would not be as harsh for the McMichaels.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said she was convinced Travis McMichael should serve his entire sentence in a Georgia state prison.
“Please listen to me,” Cooper-Jones told the judge. “Granting these men their preferred choice of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face.
Wood said she rejected the deal because its terms would have locked her into a specific sentence. She said the Arbery family should have a say in sentencing, whatever sentence is ultimately handed down.
Now the question is whether Travis McMichael will withdraw the guilty plea he entered on Monday, and whether Greg McMichael, who was offered the same deal the judge refused, will still plead guilty as expected. The judge gave them until Friday to return to the federal courthouse in Brunswick and give their answer.
The plea deals likely would have forced the McMichaels to spend decades in prison, even if they had won appeals against their state convictions.
The McMichaels armed themselves and chased Arbery in a van after spotting him running in their neighborhood outside the port city of Brunswick on February 23, 2020. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.
A national outcry erupted when the graphic video was leaked online two months later. Georgia was one of four US states that did not have a hate crimes law at the time. Lawmakers quickly approved one, but it came too late for state hate crime charges in Arbery’s murder.
Despite being convicted of murder in a trial in Georgia state court last November, the McMichaels and Bryan still face federal hate crimes charges that accuse them of raping Arbery’s civil rights and targeting him for being black.
Travis McMichael told the judge in a loud and clear voice on Monday that he was prepared to plead guilty to killing Arbery out of racial animus.
Prosecutor Tara Lyons asked the judge to put aside the Arbery family’s doubts about the deal, saying Travis McMichael’s admission would send a powerful message.
“He pleads guilty to a federal hate crime and publicly admits to the world that this crime would not have happened if Ahmaud Arbery had not been black,” Lyons said.
Lyons said she understands the Arbery family’s anger and distrust of the criminal justice system. But federal prosecutors said they consulted with attorneys for Arbery’s parents before signing any agreement.
“The Department of Justice only entered into the plea agreement after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family had no objection to it,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement.
Lee Merritt, attorney for Arbery’s mother, said that was misleading. He told reporters outside the courthouse that the family had previously rejected an identical plea deal offered by prosecutors.
“The family didn’t want to engage them on that anymore,” Merritt said. “They had their answer. They (federal prosecutors) took it as a reprieve.
No notice has been filed in court regarding a plea deal for Bryan. For now, he appears to be headed for trial next week — with or without the McMichaels, depending on whether they choose to follow through with their guilty pleas.
Wood continued preparations for the trial, saying she planned to summon the first 50 potential jurors to the courthouse on Feb. 7 to ask if they could serve as fair and impartial jurors in such a high-profile case.
During the trial in Glynn County Superior Court, the defense argued that white men had the authority to sue Arbery because they reasonably suspected he had committed crimes in their neighborhood. Travis McMichael testified that he only opened fire after Arbery attacked him with punches and tried to grab his shotgun.
The federal judge ordered that a panel of jurors be selected from across the Southern District of Georgia, which spans 43 counties, to improve the odds of having a fair and impartial jury.