After hearing an emotional plea from the mother of Ahmaud Arbery, a federal judge in Atlanta rejected a plea deal involving three white men who killed the Black man in 2020.
Travis McMichael 35, and his father Greg McMichael 65, were among three white men given life sentences in January after they were convicted of first-degree murder for killing Arbery while he was jogging in a Georgia suburb.
After they were found guilty by a nearly all-white jury, the U.S. Justice Department filed federal charges against the men, accusing them of committing a federal hate crime for kidnapping Ahmaud before they fatally shot him in the Satilla Shores neighborhood in Brunswick, Georgia, on February 23, 2020.
But instead of trying the men in court, federal prosecutors cut a plea deal with the men, sparking outrage among Black civil rights leaders and Arbery’s parents. The plea deal would have allowed the two men to spend the first 30 years of their life sentences in federal prison, which are less severe than state prisons. They are also safer, better funded, and cleaner, fueling concern that the McMichaels’ punishment would be less than what they deserve for their murder convictions.
“Ahmaud is a kid you cannot replace,” Arbery said. “He was killed racially, and we want 100 percent justice, not no half justice.”
Wanda Cooper-Jones, Ahmaud Arbery’s mother, said the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to propose the plea deal despite her objections was “disrespectful.”
“I fought so hard to get these guys in the state prison,” she said. “I told them very, very adamantly that I wanted them to go to state prison and do their time. … Then I got up this morning and found out they had accepted this ridiculous plea.”
At a hearing Monday, January 31, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the agreement made with the McMichaels. Wood said the deal would have locked her into specific terms during the men’s sentencing hearing. She said it was appropriate that the court considers the family’s wishes at sentencing, which the proposed deal would not allow.
The McMichaels were given until Friday, February 4 to decide whether they will move ahead with pleading guilty. Wood had yet to rule on Greg McMichael’s proposed deal.
Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, agreed with Judge Wood’s decisions. However, Clarke said federal prosecutors worked with the Arbery family and “entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it.”
“The Justice Department takes seriously its obligation to confer with the Arbery family and their lawyers both pursuant to the Crime Victim Rights Act and out of respect for the victim,” Clarke said.
“Before signing the proposed agreement reflecting the defendants’ confessions to federal hate crimes charges, the Civil Rights Division consulted with the victim’s attorneys.”
The Arbery’s attorney, Lee Merritt, said in news reports his clients never saw the terms of the deal and were not aware that it would interfere with their sentences in state prison, he said.
One day before Judge Wood’s decision, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion asking the U.S. District Court for the Southern District in Georgia to “dispose” of the charges pending against Gregory and Travis McMichael as part of the plea agreement.
William “Roddie” Ryan, 52, the third man charged in Arbery’s murder, was not involved in the plea deal.
Last month, Travis and Gregory McMichael were sentenced to life plus 20 years without the possibility of parole. Bryan, 52, a neighbor who filmed the killing, received life in prison with the possibility of parole in 30 years. Their convictions capped an emotional two-week trial that galvanized Black leaders who traveled across the country to attend the racially charged proceedings where just one Black juror was chosen to decide the men’s fate.
In the criminal trial, Arbery’s parents asked Judge Timothy Walmsley to give the men the harshest penalty as they shared memories of Ahmaud and the toll his death has taken on them. “Your honor, these men chose to lie and attack my son and his surviving family, they each have no remorse and do not deserve any leniency,” Cooper-Jones said. “These men deserve the maximum sentence for their crimes.”
If the men were to be convicted in the federal hate crimes trial, which was scheduled to begin February 7, they could have faced additional life sentences.