Ahmaud Arbery case: Judge rejects hate crime plea deal for Travis, Greg McMichael

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — A federal judge on Monday rejected a plea deal reached by prosecutors and Travis and Greg McMichael, two of the white men who face hate crime charges in the February 2020 killing of Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery.

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Court records filed Sunday showed the McMichaels had earlier reached the agreements with federal prosecutors, according to WSB-TV and WJAX-TV. The McMichaels and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, were previously convicted in state court of felony murder and other charges in the death of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man killed while jogging in Brunswick’s Satilla Shores neighborhood.

Arbery’s family members objected to the plea deal, which would have allowed for Travis McMichael to serve a 30-year sentence in federal jail before serving the remainder of a life sentence in a Georgia state prison.

>> Related: Ahmaud Arbery: 3 sentenced to life in prison in murder of jogger

Update 4:20 p.m. EST Jan. 31: A federal judge on Monday agreed to give attorneys for Travis and Greg McMichael more time to decide whether to plead guilty to a hate crime charge after the judge rejected a plea deal reached between the McMichaels and prosecutors.

If the McMichaels decide not to plead guilty and to instead go to trial, their trials will begin Monday, U.S. district Judge Lisa Wood said.

As part of the deal, the McMichaels would have served 30 years in prison for one count of interference with rights. Their sentences would have run concurrently with life sentences handed down earlier this year for state charges, including felony murder. They would have served their federal sentences in the custody of the U.S. Bureau of Prisons before being transferred to the custody of the Georgia Department of Corrections to serve out the rest of their sentences, officials said.

Prosecutor Tara Lyons said Travis McMichael didn’t belong to any hate groups or plan to commit a hate crime on Feb. 23, 2020. However, she said, “He had made assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery that he would not have made if Ahmaud Arbery had been white.”

Lyons pointed to Travis McMichael’s belief that Arbery committed several crimes in the neighborhood, despite a lack of evidence. She said he blamed Arbery for the theft of a gun from his vehicle even though a white person had been identified as a suspect in the theft of a gun three weeks earlier from a neighbor’s vehicle.

“As reflected in (Travis McMichael’s) social media posts, (he) had for years … associated Black skin with criminality and had harbored resentment towards African American people,” Lyons said.

FBI special agent Skylar Barnes said in court Monday that text messages and social media posts from Travis McMichael showed that he had referred to Black people as monkeys and savages, along other things. He said investigators also found “evidence he associated African Americans with crimes, and there was evidence where the defendant expressed the desire for crimes to be committed against African Americans.”

Authorities did not present evidence on Greg McMichael’s guilt before Wood struck down the plea agreement Monday.

The McMichaels are expected to appear in court again on Friday.

Update 3:49 p.m. EST Jan. 31: U.S. District Judge Lisa Wood on Monday rejected a deal reached between Travis McMichael, 36, and federal prosecutors in relation to Arbery’s death after hearing from family members who urged her not to accept the deal.

“It is my decision to reject the plea agreement,” Wood said. “In this case it is appropriate to hear at sentencing from all concerned, including the victim’s family, before deciding on what punishment best promotes all of the factors set forth in our federal sentencing statute.”

She said that she was “not comfortable accepting the terms of the plea agreement” after hearing objections from several of Arbery’s family members.

The court went into recess after Wood’s announcement to give McMichael the chance to discuss with his attorney whether to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial. He will otherwise face a sentencing hearing.

Update 3:40 p.m. EST Jan. 31: Prosecutors argued Monday that the court should accept the plea deal reached between authorities and Travis McMichael, saying that it “powerfully advances the larger interest of justice.”

“Today’s federal agreement, which includes a waiver of any federal appeal, ensures that regardless of any state appeal, (McMichael) will serve their prison time on the federal charges,” prosecutor Tara Lyons said in court. She added that family members previously told federal officials that they would not oppose a deal and appeared to have later changed their minds.

“I’m not up here blaming the family, your honor,” she said, adding that she understands the family’s frustration and anger over the deal. “I have no doubt that if my son was chased down and shot like an animal because of the color of his skin that I would feel the same.”

However, she said, “I have sworn to make sound decisions based on the law (and) on the federal rules of procedures.”

“We leave our anger, our sadness and our emotions at the door,” Lyons said. “It is our duty and obligation to be honest and candid, and we have done that.”

Update 3:30 p.m. EST Jan. 31: Arbery’s mother, Wanda Jones Cooper, asked a federal judge not to accept the deal reached between prosecutors and Travis McMichael, saying that he would get preferential treatment under confinement in federal prison as opposed to state prison.

“It gives (Travis and Greg McMichael) one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son,” she said in court. “It is not fair to take away the victory that I prayed and I fought for. It is not right. It is not just. It is wrong. Please listen to me.”

Ahmaud Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, said his family wanted to see the McMichaels face trial in federal court.

“These men do not deserve a plea,” Marcus Arbery said. “What they did to our son is too devastating.”

Marcus Arbery’s sister, Diane Jackson, got emotional in court as she talked about how her nephew, who was known to family as Quez, lay in the street bleeding out “and (the McMichaels) turned their (backs) on Quez.”

“Y’all destroyed our family,” she said. “I’m still in counseling. I’m going to therapy because every time I close my eyes, I still see Ahmaud laying in the street.”

Update 2:25 p.m. EST Jan. 31: Travis McMichael said in court Monday that he wants to plead guilty to one count of interference with rights in relation to Arbery’s death.

In an indictment filed in federal court, prosecutors accused McMichael of injuring, intimidating and interfering with Arbery “because of Arbery’s race and color, and because he was and had been enjoying a facility provided by a state and subdivision thereof; specifically, as Arbery was running on a public street in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Georgia.”

The charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison a fine of up to $250,000.

Update 1:50 p.m. EST Jan. 31: The McMichaels are scheduled to appear Monday in court for change of plea hearings, according to records from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Georgia.

Travis McMichael is scheduled to appear before Judge Lisa Wood at 2 p.m. His father, Greg McMichael, is scheduled to appear for a change of plea hearing at 2:45 p.m.

Update 9:40 a.m. EST Jan. 31: In a statement obtained by WJAX, Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper Jones, expressed frustration Monday morning over the deal reached between prosecutors and the McMichaels.

“The (Department of Justice) has gone behind my back to offer the men who murdered my son a deal to make their time in prison easier for them to serve,” she said in the statement. “I have made it clear at every possible moment that I do not agree to offer these men a plea deal of any kind. I have been completely betrayed by the DOJ lawyers.”

>> Related: Ahmaud Arbery: 3 charged with killing jogger found guilty of murder

In a series of Twitter posts Monday morning, Arbery family attorney Lee Merritt said, “Federal prison is a country club when compared to state prison.”

“Federal prisons are less populated, better funded and generally more accommodating than state prisons,” he said. “These men hurriedly entered this plea deal that would allow them to transfer out of custody from (a Georgia state) prison.”

Original report: Defense attorneys said the McMichaels and Bryan suspected Arbery of burglary and chased after him in an attempt to hold him under a citizen’s arrest. On the stand, Travis McMichael claimed he shot Arbery in self-defense as they struggled over Travis McMichael’s shotgun. The McMichaels later received life sentences without the possibility of parole, while Bryan was sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole, WJAX-TV reported.

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All three men also are facing federal hate crimes charges in connection with the case. The role that race played in Arbery’s death was set to be the focus of the federal trial scheduled for Feb. 7, according to WSB-TV.

Court documents filed Sunday do not specify the details of the McMichaels’ plea agreement, which must be reviewed and approved by a judge. The filings do not indicate an agreement for Bryan, WSB-TV reported.

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In social media posts early Monday, S. Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother, described the plea agreements as a “back room deal” and a “betrayal to the Arbery family.”

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