Two of the three white men convicted in the 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man in Georgia, United States, have reached a plea deal in a federal hate crime case, court filings show.
Details of the deal reached by prosecutors and convicted father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael were not immediately released in the documents that revealed the agreement on Sunday.
However, lawyers for Arbery’s family quickly condemned the “back-room plea deal”, which they said would allow the McMichaels to “enter federal custody and serve the first 30 years of their sentence in a preferred federal prison”.
Federal officials have not confirmed that characterisation of the agreement.
“Both Wanda Cooper Jones and Marcus Arbery, the parents of Ahmaud Arbery are vehemently against this deal and have expressed this directly on calls with DOJ officials today,” the lawyers said in a statement to local media, referring to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Gregory & Travis McMichael have signed plea deals with the DOJ to allow the men— serving Life Without the Possibility of Parole in GA state prison— to transfer to preferred Federal Custody.
This back room deal represents a betrayal to the Arbery family who is devastated. pic.twitter.com/SAVG1syLS9
— Lee Merritt (@MerrittForTexas) January 31, 2022
“The family is devastated at the latest development, their wishes are being completely ignored and they do not consent to these accommodations,” they said.
In a further statement released by the lawyers, Arbery’s mother Cooper Jones said she had been “completely betrayed by the DOJ lawyers”.
“The DOJ 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.
Gregory and Travis McMichael, aged 66 and 35 respectively, and their neighbour William Bryan, 52, were convicted in a state court in November 2021 of chasing down and killing Arbery. The McMichaels were convicted to life in prison without parole, while Bryan was handed a sentence of life in prison with parole.
The trio spotted Arbery, who family say was an avid jogger, running through the Satilla Shores neighbourhood in February 2020. They took to their trucks and began chasing Arbery, later telling investigators they believed he had been involved in a string of property crimes in the area.
After chasing down Arbery, Travis McMichaels fatally shot him with a shotgun during a brief confrontation. Video of the killing captured by Bryan later spread online, attracting national attention as protests against racial injustice swept across the US in 2020.
Prosecutors did not mention Bryan, who also faces federal hate crime charges, in their filing on Sunday.
Arbery’s killing led to the appeal of the state’s civil-war-era citizen’s arrest law that allowed any citizen to make an arrest if a crime was committed “within his immediate knowledge”.
Defence laywers had sought to portray the McMichaels and Bryan as acting, perhaps recklessly, in the best interest of protecting the community. Travis McMichael has said he opened fire in self-defence.
Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson was later charged with obstruction and violation of oath for allegedly delaying the arrests of the trio, which only came more than two months after the killing when the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case.
Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, had previously worked in Johnson’s office. Despite eventually recusing herself from the case, prosecutors said Johnson had “knowingly and willfully” directed two officers not to arrest Travis McMichael for the killing.