US judge rejects plea agreement for Ahmaud Arbery’s killer

Judge says plea deal for Travis McMichael in hate crimes case would discount wishes of Arbery’s family at sentencing.

A woman holds a sign that reads, 'Justice for Ahmaud'
Ahmaud Arbery's killing in the US state of Georgia in February 2020 fuelled racial justice protests across the United States [File: Marco Bello/Reuters]

A United States federal judge has rejected a plea agreement that would have averted a hate crimes trial for Travis McMichael, the man convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.

Arbery’s parents had denounced the proposed deal for Travis McMichael, who chased and fatally shot Arbery as the 25-year-old jogged through a coastal Georgia community in February 2020.

Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery emotionally asked the judge on Monday to reject agreements filed for McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael.

A Georgia state jury in November found both McMichaels, as well as their neighbour William “Roddie” Bryan, guilty of killing Arbery, whose death fuelled mass protests against racism and vigilantism across the US.

But the trio also faced separate hate crimes charges at the US federal level, as prosecutors accused them of infringing on Arbery’s civil rights by chasing and killing him on February 23, 2020 because he was Black.

In rejecting the plea agreement in the hate crimes case, US District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said on Monday that the deal would have locked her into specific terms — including 30 years in federal prison — at sentencing.

Wood said that in this case, it would only be appropriate to consider the family’s wishes at sentencing, which the proposed deal would not allow.

Travis McMichael and his lawyer asked for a 10-minute break to discuss whether he moves ahead with pleading guilty.

CNN reported that Wood was expected to rule separately on Greg McMichael’s plea deal, but lawyers for both men “asked for more time” to decide whether to change their pleas.

The judge gave the McMichaels until Friday to decide whether they move ahead with pleading guilty, while continuing with preparations to summon the first 50 potential jurors to the courthouse on February 7 for questioning.

‘We want 100 percent justice’

Marcus Arbery told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia, that he was “mad as hell” over the deals.

Lawyer Lee Merritt said the agreements could enable Travis and Greg McMichael to spend the first 30 years of their life sentences in federal prison, rather than state prison where conditions are tougher.

“Ahmaud is a kid you cannot replace,” Marcus Arbery said. “He was killed racially and we want 100 percent justice, not no half justice.”

Arbery’s mother, Cooper-Jones, described the US Justice Department’s decision to propose the plea deal despite her objections as “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.”

The proposed plea agreements were filed with the court late Sunday. There was no mention of a deal with their co-defendant, William “Roddie” Bryan. Federal deals would not affect state murder convictions in Arbery’s killing, as all three men were sentenced to life in prison on January 7.

The hate crime charges accuse the McMichaels and Bryan of violating the 25-year-old Black man’s civil rights by chasing him through their neighbourhood in coastal Georgia on February 23, 2020. The McMichaels armed themselves and pursued Arbery in one pick-up truck truck while Bryan joined the chase in another and recorded video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.

A national outcry erupted when the graphic video leaked online two months later.

Georgia was one of just four US states without a hate crimes law at the time. Legislators quickly approved one, but it came too late for state hate crime charges in Arbery’s killing.

During the state trial in Glynn County Superior Court, the defence argued that the three men had the authority to chase Arbery because they reasonably suspected he had been committing crimes in their neighbourhood.

Travis McMichael testified that he opened fire only after Arbery attacked him with fists and tried to grab his shotgun.

Source: Al Jazeera, The Associated Press