US District Judge Lisa G. Wood on Monday rejected the plea deal reached by prosecutors and Travis McMichael on hate crime charges, a plan that would have precluded his federal trial in killing of Ahmaud Arbery. Federal judge rejects plea agreement in Travis McMichael’s hate crime case
Earlier, McMichael had agreed to plead guilty to a single hate crime charge — interference with rights — in exchange for prosecutors recommending he serve 30 years in federal prison.
Under the terms of the agreement, McMichael, 36, would have been transferred from a state prison to federal custody, then after completing that sentence be returned to Georgia to finish his life in prison without parole state sentence. Five of those final years would have counted to his supervised release from federal prison.
Wood said she was not comfortable with the sentencing guidelines of the agreement.
The judge had been expected to rule separately on the plea deal for McMichael’s father, Gregory McMichael, in a hearing originally scheduled to begin 45 minutes after the first court session.
But after the judge’s rejection of the plea deal, attorneys for both McMichaels asked for more time to decide whether to change their pleas to guilty. The next hearing will be Friday.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, was angered by the proposed deal and told the court that a state judge gave the McMichaels exactly what they deserve after they were convicted of state charges and urged Wood not to accept it.
“Please listen to me,” Cooper-Jones told the judge. “Granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son.”
S. Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother, previously called federal prison “a country club compared to state prison,” saying the facilities are less populated, have better funding and are “generally more accommodating” than state holding facilities, according to tweets from his account.
Merritt told CNN on Monday morning that the Arbery family was displeased that prosecutors had agreed to the deal without the family’s consent.
Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the Justice Department respects the court’s decision not to accept the plea agreement but said in a statement that prosecutors “entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it.”
In telling Wood he agreed to the deal, Travis McMichael conceded that he had killed Arbery as he ran down a public street, and “acted because of Mr. Arbery’s race or color.”
A prosecutor told Wood that the testimony was important because Travis McMichael was admitting not only to the crime of killing Arbery, who was Black, but also the racial animus that drove him to commit murder.
The trial is scheduled for Monday with the start of jury selection. If the case goes to trial, the McMichaels each face a penalty of life in prison.
In early January, Gregory and Travis McMichael were convicted in state court of murder in Arbery’s death after he was shot while running from the McMichaels and another man, William “Roddie” Bryan.
Bryan was also convicted in state court and sentenced to life with the possibility of parole. He did not have a proposed plea deal on the federal charges.
All three men were charged with one count of interference with rights and with one count of attempted kidnapping, according to federal indictment.
Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael were charged with one count each of using, carrying, and brandishing (in Travis’s case discharging) a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence.
Trial drew national attention
The three defendants were convicted on state charges in the February 23, 2020, murder. The McMichaels told police they believed Arbery was a suspect in recent burglaries and chased him. Bryan, a neighbor, got in a vehicle and also pursued Arbery as he was jogging.
Travis McMichael exited the vehicle after catching up to Arbery and fatally shot him as the two struggled over McMichael’s shotgun.
The McMichaels were arrested May 7, 2020, days after video of the shooting surfaced, and Bryan was taken into custody two weeks later.
The subsequent trial drew national attention. The circumstances surrounding the killing involved race, video evidence and the rights and limitations of self-defense using firearms.
The case dovetailed with the killings of three Black people — Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta — reigniting concerns over racial injustice and prompting civil unrest nationwide.
Much was also made about the investigation prior to the trial — which featured multiple prosecutor recusals — as well as tactics utilized by some of the defendants’ defense attorneys during the trial that were questioned by legal experts.
The presence during the trial of civil rights leaders, such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, brought condemnation and accusations of undue influence from at least one defense attorney, while another defense attorney’s comments about Arbery’s toenails drew heavy criticism from Arbery’s family and others.
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