Another Arbery killer withdraws guilty plea in hate crime case

The pivots by Travis and Gregory McMichael come after judge rejected plea deals condemned by Ahmaud Arbery’s family.

Gregory McMichael
Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, have changed their pleas to not guilty in federal hate crime case for killing of Ahmaud Arbery [File: Octavio Jones/AP Photo]

Two of the three men convicted of chasing down and murdering Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, in the US state of Georgia have withdrawn their guilty pleas and will face trial in a federal hate crime case.

In a brief hearing in United States District Court in Brunswick, Georgia on Friday, Travis McMichael said he would withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial on Monday alongside his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbour, William “Roddie” Bryan.

The switch came after a US District Court judge last week rejected the terms of a plea deal the McMichaels had reached with federal prosecutors.

Lawyers for Gregory McMichael and federal prosecutors filed a joint notice of withdrawal of his plea agreement on Thursday, saying the deal is “null and void” and that both sides were “ready for trial”.

The filing reaffirmed the elder McMichael’s original plea of not guilty.

The McMichaels and Bryan were convicted of murder in a Georgia state court last year for pursuing and fatally shooting 25-year-old Arbery in a Glynn County neighbourhood in February 2020.

Last week, prosecutors announced they had reached a plea deal on separate federal hate crime charges that would see the McMichaels plead guilty in exchange for spending a portion of their life sentences in more preferable federal prison facilities.

Arbery’s family quickly condemned the agreement as a “back-room deal” that left them “completely betrayed” by federal prosecutors.

Arbery’s mother and other relatives had pleaded with the judge to reject the plea agreement because they wanted the men to remain in the Georgia prison system. Federal prisons are generally perceived as more comfortable than those run by states.

They also said a trial was the best way of establishing that Arbery was pursued because he was Black.

Marcus Arbery briefly spoke to reporters outside the federal court on Friday, saying he saw next week’s trial as a step towards justice for his son’s death.

There has been no indication as to whether the third defendant, Bryan, is currently considering a plea bargain.

Arbery’s killing sparked national outrage after a video of the incident, taken by Bryan, began circulating online. His death, along with the police killing of George Floyd and several other high-profile killings of unarmed Black Americans, set a summer of racial justice protests in the US.

Arbery’s killing also drew attention to a Civil War-era citizens arrest law, leading to its overhaul in the wake of the incident.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies