A federal judge rejected a plea deal Monday afternoon that would have allowed one of the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery to avoid a federal hate crime trial.
U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood heard arguments Monday from Arbery’s family and prosecutors after the Department of Justice struck a plea deal with Arbery’s killers Gregory and Travis McMichael over the weekend.
Travis McMichael, the man who fatally shot Arbery, had his plea deal tossed out by Wood. A decision was not yet made on Gregory McMichael’s plea deal.
Arbery’s family was outraged that the plea would allow the McMichaels to serve time in federal prison instead of the Georgia state system.
“It is not fair to take away the victory I prayed and fought for. It is not right, it is not fair, it is not just,” Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, said during the court hearing on Monday.
“Ahmaud did not get an option of a plea; Ahmaud was killed. Ahmaud was hunted down. My son was killed. I am asking you on behalf of my family, please do not accept this deal,” Cooper-Jones said.
The son and father who were convicted in November in a Georgia state court of murdering Arbery reached a plea agreement Sunday night in a federal hate crimes case related to the killing.
The plea agreement came as a surprise to the family, said family attorney Lee Merritt. The deal, according to Merritt, allows the McMichaels to serve their first 30 years of the life sentences they received in Arbery’s murder trial in federal prison. Merritt described it as a softer punishment since federal facilities are “safer, less crowded and more orderly” than Georgia prisons.
The agreement made no mention of William “Roddie” Bryan, who is also charged with a hate crime in Arbery’s murder. All three men were convicted of murder on Jan. 7 and sentenced to life in prison. Bryan received the possibility of getting parole.
“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. I have made it clear at every possible moment that I do not agree to offer these men a plea deal of any kind,” Cooper-Jones said before the court proceedings Monday. “I have been completely betrayed by DOJ lawyers.”
Merritt said Arbery’s family has “worked hard” to make sure the McMichaels spend the rest of their lives in state custody. He called the DOJ agreement a “back room” deal and said it represented a “betrayal” to the “Arbery family who is devastated” about the 25-year-old’s murder.
“Federal prison is a country club when compared to state prison. Federal prisons are less populated, better funded and generally more accommodating than state prisons. These men hurriedly entered this plea deal that would allow them to transfer out of custody from GA prison,” Merritt said on Twitter late Sunday night.
“In essence they get to publicly brag about their hatred & then be rewarded by the federal government,” he added.
The federal hate crimes trial is set to begin on Feb. 7. Jury selection is expected to last up to three weeks.
The federal hate crime charges accuse the McMichaels and Bryan of violating Arbery’s rights on Feb. 23, 2020, the day they chased and killed him. Both the McMichaels were armed while in a pickup truck chasing Arbery. Bryan followed.
During the state trial, the defense argued the men had reasonable suspicion to follow Arbery that day, while prosecutors said the men made decisions based on “assumptions.”
National outrage followed Arbery’s murder in 2020 after the video of the deadly chase surfaced and spread on social media.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify that only Travis McMichael’s plea deal was rejected at the time of publication.