A federal judge rejected a plea agreement Monday that would have averted a hate crimes trial for one of the men convicted in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery.
U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ruled against the agreement made with Travis McMichael after hearing an emotional plea from Arbery’s family who was opposed to the plea arrangements with McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael.
In rejecting the deal, Wood explained it would have locked her into specific terms –including 30 years in federal prison – at sentencing. Wood said that in this case, it would only be appropriate to consider the family’s wishes at sentencing, which the proposed deal wouldn’t allow.
The judge gave the McMichaels until Friday to decide whether they move ahead with pleading guilty. Wood had yet to rule on father Greg McMichael’s proposed deal.
Arbery’s father, Marcus, told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Brunswick that he’s “mad as hell” over the deal, which lawyer Lee Merritt, who is representing the family, said could enable Travis and Greg McMichael to spend the first 30 years of their life sentences in federal prison, rather than state prison where conditions are tougher.
“Ahmaud is a kid you cannot replace,” Arbery said. “He was killed racially and we want 100% justice, not no half justice.”
Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, said the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to propose the plea deal despite her objections was “disrespectful.”
“I fought so hard to get these guys in the state prison,” she said. “I told them very, very adamantly that I wanted them to go to state prison and do their time. … Then I got up this morning and found out they had accepted this ridiculous plea.”
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Merritt said the deal would allow the McMichaels to serve the first 30 years of their sentence in federal prison, which he called “a huge accommodation” because federal prisons are generally less crowded, better funded and safer, according to the statement posted online.
Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, said prosecutors respected the judge’s decision. She said prosecutors worked with the Arbery family and “entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it.”
“The Justice Department takes seriously its obligation to confer with the Arbery family and their lawyers both pursuant to the Crime Victim Rights Act and out of respect for the victim,” Clarke said. “Before signing the proposed agreement reflecting the defendants’ confessions to federal hate crimes charges, the Civil Rights Division consulted with the victims’ attorneys.”
Merritt, in an interview with USA TODAY, said that was a “misrepresentation” of the discussions and said the family wanted no part of any plea deal. He said the family wasn’t as concerned with the federal trial due to the men already being convicted in state court, which carried the heaviest charges and consequences.
The family never saw the terms of the deal and wasn’t aware it would interfere with their sentences in state prison, he said.
Lead federal prosecutor Tara Lyons acknowledged the miscommunication in court Monday, and said she understood the Arbery family’s pain and struggle and the “distrust they feel with law enforcement and the justice system,” but she said she supports the agreement and believed it would allow “some healing to begin.”
In the filing late Sunday, attorneys for the Department of Justice asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District in Georgia to “dispose” of the charges pending against Gregory and Travis McMichael as part of the plea agreement.
A notice of a plea deal was not filed for the third man charged in Arbery’s death, William “Roddie” Bryan.
Earlier this month, the McMichaels and Bryan were sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of murder and other crimes by a Georgia jury.
The three men were charged with federal hate crimes and attempted kidnapping after they chased Arbery, 25, in trucks while he was running through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, on Feb. 23, 2020. At the time of Arbery’s murder, Georgia did not have a hate crime law.
Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Arbery during the confrontation, and Gregory McMichael also faced additional federal charges for using firearms during the crime.
Earlier this month, Travis McMichael, 35, and Gregory McMichael, 65, were sentenced to life plus 20 years without the possibility of parole. Their neighbor Bryan, 52, who filmed the killing, received life in prison with the possibility of parole in 30 years.
If the men were to be convicted in the federal hate crimes trial, which was scheduled to begin Feb. 7, they could have faced additional life sentences.
Officials from the Department of Justice and Travis McMichael’s attorney did not immediately respond to a request to confirm the details of the plea agreement. A.J. Balbo, an attorney for Greg McMichael, declined to comment on a pending case.
While some minimum security federal prisons have a reputation for being lenient on defendants, it’s unlikely someone convicted of murder would end up in one of those facilities, said Tim Floyd, a criminal law professor at Mercer University in Georgia.
“I’d hate to generalize that one would be a lot worse than the other,” Floyd said. “They’re facing a tough situation wherever they end up serving their sentence.”
While prosecutors typically consider the wishes of surviving family members, ultimately the attorneys and the judge have final say on plea deals, Floyd noted.
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Floyd said the plea deal is may be beneficial to federal prosecutors because it ensures the defendants will serve prison time even if they are able to appeal their state court conviction.
“It’s sort of a guarantee for the prosecutors at both the state and federal level that if they get them to plead guilty, then they’re going to spend basically the rest of their life in prison either way,” he said. “It’s much more difficult to succeed in an appeal from a guilty plea than from a trial.”
The deal could also be beneficial to Bryan who may now stand trial alone, Floyd said. Bryan’s lawyer, Kevin Gough, moved several times during the state murder trial to separate his case from the McMichaels.
Meanwhile on Monday, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood continued preparations to summon the first 50 potential jurors to the courthouse for questioning.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Follow N’dea Yancey-Bragg on Twitter: @NdeaYanceyBragg
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