Federal judge rejects hate crime plea in Arbery killing

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Thursday, February 3, 2022

Protestors gathering outside the courthouse on November 10, 2021 during the trial of the three accused of the February 23, 2020 murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
Image: Jud McCranie.

On Monday, Judge Lisa Godbey Wood of the U.S. District Court in Brunswick, Georgia rejected a guilty plea from Travis McMichael after McMichael offered in court to plead guilty to federal hate crimes in the death of Ahmaud Arbery.

It is highly unusual for a U.S. judge to reject a plea agreement, which would waive McMichael's right to appeal.

McMichael said he was willing to plead guilty to attacking Arbery out of racial animosity, which would make Arbery's murder a hate crime. In the proposed plea deal, he would have spent the first 30 years of his sentence in a federal prison. After that, he would move to a Georgia state prison for the rest of his life. Per this deal, even if his state charges were overturned, McMichael would still spend many years in prison.

In court, federal prosecutors urged Judge Wood to accept the plea deal, but Arbery's family asked her not to. The dead man's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said that the men who killed her son did not deserve to choose their living conditions: "Granting these men their preferred choice of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face."

Prosecutors claimed they had talked with the victim's family about the plea deal in advance, but lawyers for Cooper-Jones disagreed.

Judge Wood explained that Cooper-Jones' statement was part of her decision, but her main reason was that she did not want to be held to the strict 30-year sentence agreed upon by prosecutors and McMichael's lawyers.

Wood's decision casts doubt on whether McMichael's father, Gregory McMichael will also plead guilty as planned. Gregory McMichael also helped kill Arbery.

In February 2020, the McMichaels and a third man, William Bryan, chased Arbery, 25, in trucks as he jogged through their suburban Georgia neighborhood. Travis McMichael then fought with Arbery on foot and shot him to death. Bryan took cell phone video of the event, which later appeared on the Internet.

In November 2021, all three men were convicted of murder in Georgia's Glynn County Superior Court. They were sentenced to life in prison, though only Bryan was granted the possibility of parole. The state of Georgia did not at that time have its own hate crime law, and prosecutors decided to charge the men on the federal level.

Jury selection for Travis McMichael's federal hate crimes trial is scheduled to begin on Monday, February 7.