Brunswick, GA – A federal judge rejected a plea agreement on Monday afternoon for two of the men facing federal hate crimes charges in connection with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood put the kibosh on the plea deal after Arbery’s family strenuously objected to a provision in it that would have permitted his killers to serve some of their time in federal prison instead of in a Georgia penitentiary, the Associated Press reported.
Emotions ran high in Wood’s federal courtroom on Jan. 31 as prosecutors tried to get the judge to accept the agreement they had negotiated with 35-year-old Travis McMichael and 66-year-old Gregory McMichael.
Notices of the plea agreements for the father-son duo were filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia on Sunday, The Washington Post reported.
Under the terms of the plea deal, both of the McMichaels would serve the first 30 years of their life without the possibility of parole sentences in federal prison instead of state prison in exchange for pleading guilty and saving the government a drawn-out hate crimes trial, the Associated Press reported.
Georgia state prisons have been under federal investigation and are considered considerably less comfortable and safe than their federal counterparts.
But the deal still needed to be approved by a federal judge.
Arbery’s family specifically objected to the provision in the plea agreement that would have immediately transferred the McMichaels into the custody of the federal prison system once the agreement was approved, the Associated Press reported.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, was in the courtroom and pleaded with the judge to reject the plea agreement for the men who killed her son.
“Please listen to me,” Cooper-Jones told Wood. “Granting these men their preferred choice of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face.”
Federal prosecutors tried to get the judge to bless the plea deals over the objections of Arbery’s family but were ultimately unsuccessful, the Associated Press reported.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons tried to convince Wood that Travis McMichael’s admission that the murder of Arbery was based in racism would send a powerful message that made it acceptable to set aside the Arbery family’s misgivings.
“He is pleading guilty to a federal hate crime and publicly confessing to the world that this crime would not have happened had Ahmaud Arbery not been black,” Lyons said.
She said she understood the victim’s family’s outrage and distrust of the criminal justice system but said prosecutors had consulted the Arbery’s attorneys prior to making the deal with the McMichaels, the Associated Press reported.
“The Justice Department entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said in a statement.
Lee Merritt, an attorney for Cooper Jones, called that assertion “misleading” and said the family had previously rejected an identical plea deal and no longer wanted to engage with prosecutors on that point, the Associated Press reported.
“The family no longer wanted to engage them concerning that point,” Merritt said. “They had had their answer. They [federal prosecutors] took that as a deferral.”
The judge ultimately rejected the plea agreement that had been negotiated with the McMichaels, the Associated Press reported.
Wood said the agreement, as it stood, would have locked her into a specific sentence — 30 years in federal prison – and said she thought it was appropriate to consider the victim’s family’s wishes.
The elder McMichael was supposed to have had his hearing immediately after his son’s on Jan. 31, but Wood said she would rule the same way for the father’s plea agreement and gave them both until Friday to think about whether they wanted to withdraw their guilty pleas, the Associated Press reported.
The judge told the men to think about whether they wanted to serve the 30 years agreed to in state prison or risk her sentencing them to more years than they had agreed to in their plea deals.
Jury selection was scheduled to begin in the federal trial on Feb. 7 in U.S. District Court.
The McMichaels and the man who filmed Arbery’s killing – William “Roddie” Bryan – went to trial in November of 2021 and a Glynn County jury deliberated for 11 hours before finding all three guilty of murdering Arbery as he jogged through their neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020.
Superior Court Judge Timothy R. Walmsley sentenced father and son to life without the possibility of parole on Jan. 7.
Bryan was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole.
His name did not appear in the plea agreement documents filed with the court over the weekend, The Washington Post reported.
All three men were still facing federal hate crime charges filed against them in April of 2021 by the U.S. Department of Justice in connection with Arbery’s murder.
On April 28, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced that a federal grand jury in the Southern District of Georgia had indicted both McMichaels and Bryan on one count each of interference with rights and one count each of attempted kidnapping.
DOJ said both McMichaels were also charged with one count each of using, carrying, and brandishing a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
Additionally, Travis McMichael was charged with one count of discharging a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence, according to the press release.