One of the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery pleaded guilty to federal hate-crime charges on Monday, admitting for the first time he chased the 25-year-old black man because of his race.
Travis McMichael changed his plea at a hearing in the U.S. District Court in Brunswick, Georgia, after reaching a plea deal with federal prosecutors. He pleaded guilty to using a gun in his attempt to apprehend Arbery because of his “race and color,” resulting in Arbery‘s death.
His father, Gregory McMichael, was also due to plead guilty as part of an agreement at a subsequent hearing on Monday, over the objections of Arbery‘s family, who said prosecutors had gone behind their back in securing the plea deals.
The McMichaels were convicted of murder last November in a state court in Brunswick alongside their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan.
Prosecutors said the men “assumed the worst” about the black man running through their neighborhood, unfairly thinking he must have been fleeing some crime when they chased him down in pickup trucks before cornering and shooting him in Feb. 2020.
Arbery‘s killing sparked national outrage when cellphone video taken by Bryan of the shooting emerged months later and the public learned that local authorities had declined to arrest his pursuers.
At a hearing before U.S. District Judge Lisa Wood, Travis McMichael admitted he had shared racist sentiments in text messages and social media posts for many years.
“Defendant Travis McMichael did not belong to any hate groups and did not set out on February 23, 2020, to carry out an act of violence against an African-American person,” said the plea agreement, which was read aloud in court. “But he had made assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery that he would not have made if Ahmaud Arbery had been white.”
McMichael admitted that in his messages he had associated black skin “with criminality,” and that he had supported vigilante efforts to harm or kill Black people, “particularly those he saw as criminal.”
Under the agreement, prosecutors will recommend the judge sentence McMichael, 36, to 30 years in federal prison before returning him to the custody of the Georgia prison system for the rest of his life.
The attorney for Arbery‘s family, Lee Merritt, said in a statement that he will oppose the deals in the hearings on Monday and that Arbery‘s family was “devastated.”
“The DOJ has gone behind my back to offer the men who murdered my son a deal to make their time in prison easier to serve,” Arbery‘s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said in statement provided by Merritt.
“I have been completely betrayed by the DOJ lawyers,” she said, referring to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Federal prisons are perceived to be generally safer than state prisons, and Arbery‘s family said the McMichaels were motivated by wanting to improve the conditions of their custody.
The McMichaels were sentenced to life in prison without parole by a state judge on Jan. 7. Bryan was also sentenced to life in prison, but the judge ruled that he could seek parole after 30 years.
State prosecutors told the court that they had evidence that “racial animus” had been behind the men’s decision to jump in their pick-up trucks and chase Arbery through their quiet, leafy neighborhood on a sunny afternoon in Feb. 23, 2020. In the end, they decided against showing any of that evidence to the jury.
Arbery‘s family and civil rights activists instead looked to the federal trial as vital to establishing what they said was the heart of the matter: that Arbery was attacked because of his race and skin color.
On Sunday, federal prosecutors filed notices asking Wood to accept plea agreements with the McMichaels. No mention was made of a deal with Bryan, who is due to stand trial on Feb. 7 unless a deal is reached. Bryan’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
Copyright 2022 Thomson/Reuters