A U.S. judge in Georgia rejected plea agreements reached between federal prosecutors and two of the three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, saying she was not willing to be bound to the 30-year federal prison sentence set in the agreement.
The unusual decision by U.S. District Judge Lisa Wood came after Travis McMichael, one of the three attackers due to face trial next week on federal hate-crime charges, admitted for the first time he had pursued the 25-year-old Black man because of his race.
The decision means the parties must either return to court with a more acceptable deal when the hearing resumes on Friday morning or prepare next week for trial.
McMichael had appeared in the U.S. District Court in Brunswick, Georgia, in an attempt to change his plea to guilty, admitting to a charge of using a gun in his attempt to apprehend Arbery because of his “race and color,” resulting in Arbery‘s death. He fired at Arbery three times at close range with his shotgun.
His father, Gregory McMichael, had also been due to change his plea to guilty as part of an agreement at a subsequent hearing on Monday over the objections of Arbery‘s relatives, who successfully begged Wood not to accept the deals.
The McMichaels have already faced trial at the state level when they were convicted of murder last November in a court in Brunswick alongside their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan and sentenced to life in prison. The state judge ruled that only Bryan would ever be able to seek parole.
State 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 February 2020.
MOTHER’S APPEAL TO JUDGE
In rejecting the federal agreement, Wood acknowledged emotional testimony on Monday by Arbery‘s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and other relatives who begged the judge not to accept the deal.
They said they were alarmed that prosecutors had agreed to recommend McMichael be transferred to a federal prison for 30 years before returning him to the custody of the Georgia prison system for the rest of his life. Federal prisons are generally perceived as less brutal environments than typical state prisons.
“Granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement will defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son,” Cooper-Jones told the court. “The state of Georgia already gave these men exactly what they deserve. Please leave it that way.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons said the government had repeatedly consulted with Arbery‘s family, and that they had previously not opposed an agreement as the best way to ensure that the McMichaels would admit race played a role in their crimes and give up their right to appeal a federal conviction.
“I understand the anger, the pain and the struggle that the family is feeling with this resolution,” she said in asking the judge to accept the deal.
In a statement after the hearing, U.S. Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said the Justice Department respected the court’s decision and that the agreements had been entered “only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it.”
Judges rarely reject plea agreements. Rejections can occur if judges believe the agreements do not adequately address the nature of the crimes, the rights of victims, or the interests of the public.
Wood said that under the plea agreement before her she would be bound to accept the 30-year federal sentence, and that she needed more information before she could decide if that was just.
“If I accept it, it locks me in to that sentence,” she said.
Federal judges on occasion reject a plea agreement when they disagree with prosecutors’ proposed sentence in order to avoid any surprises at the later sentencing hearing, according to Paul Applebaum, a criminal defense attorney in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“It’s just the right thing to do if she has a problem with it,” Applebaum said, adding that the two sides could continue negotiations for a different deal ahead of trial.
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.
Earlier in the hearing, 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 proposed 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.”
Prosecutors also called an FBI agent to the stand, who testified that a search of McMichael’s cellphone showed he frequently referred to Black people as “monkeys,” “savages” and another racist slur.
No notice was made of a plea agreement with Bryan, who is also due to stand trial on Feb. 7. Bryan’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.
Copyright 2022 Thomson/Reuters