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After Federal Judge Shreds Plea Deal, Ahmaud Arbery’s Convicted Murderers Will Press Their Luck at Civil Rights Trial

Travis and Greg McMichael

Travis and Greg McMichael

Days after a federal judge torpedoed an agreement with prosecutors amid outcry from Ahmaud Arbery’s family, the father and son convicted of the 25-year-old Black man’s murder backed off from guilty pleas conceding that their crimes were racially motivated. Both will now press ahead with a trial scheduled to begin next week.

After a Georgia state court jury found both men guilty of Arbery’s murder late last year, gunman Travis McMichael and his father Greg McMichael had intended to enter a plea deal with federal prosecutors earlier this week that would have allowed for 30 years of their life sentences to be spend in federal custody. That was before Arbery’s family passionately urged a federal judge to reject the deal.

“I’m asking on behalf of his family, on the behalf of his memory, and on behalf of fairness that you do not accept this plea,” Arbery’s mother Wanda CooperJones told the court. She noted that the men “prefer to be” in federal custody.

Prosecutors justified the deal as containing an important concession: acknowledgements that they killed Arbery “because of [his] race and color.”

During a lengthy hearing on Monday, federal prosecutors called state and federal law enforcement witnesses to argue that they could prove those allegations at a trial. Issues of race were largely absent from the McMichaels’ state-level murder trial, but they would necessarily be the focus of a federal civil rights prosecution based on the elements of the crimes charged.

When the McMichaels saw Arbery running away from a property in the Satilla Shores neighborhood of Brunswick, Ga., they chased him — claiming they believed him to have been the man behind a burglary there. Greg McMichael placed a 911 call that described the purported emergency as a “Black male running down the street.”

An FBI agent testified on Monday that he saw evidence that Travis McMichael referred to Black people as “monkeys” “savages,” and “n****rs” — and expressed the desire for crimes to be committed against African-Americans.

After the government built that fact record, McMichael confirmed that he wished to enter into the agreements knowingly and voluntarily, but his defense attorney Amy Lee Copeland of the firm Rouse & Copeland confirmed at a hearing on Friday morning that those admissions would now be void.

Greg McMichael, the father of the duo, notified the court via a Thursday evening filing that he would withdraw his guilty plea.

For Arbery’s family, an acknowledgment of the crime’s racial motivations was insufficient.

“I don’t need them to say that they were motivated by hate,” Cooper said. “That does me no good. That does my family no good. I’ve heard enough from Travis McMichael.”

At the time, the Justice Department’s civil rights chief Kristen Clarke — the first Black woman to hold that post — blamed the development on miscommunication with the family’s lawyers.

“The Justice Department entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it,” Clarke said in a statement on Monday.

On the first anniversary of her son’s death, Arbery’s mother filed a civil lawsuit accusing Glynn County law enforcement authorities of covering up her son’s killing. That case, which remains pending, alleges that Travis McMichael called her son a racial slur after shooting him to death. His federal trial begins on Monday.

[Photos via Law&Crime Network]

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Law&Crime's managing editor Adam Klasfeld has spent more than a decade on the legal beat. Previously a reporter for Courthouse News, he has appeared as a guest on NewsNation, NBC, MSNBC, CBS's "Inside Edition," BBC, NPR, PBS, Sky News, and other networks. His reporting on the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell was featured on the Starz and Channel 4 documentary "Who Is Ghislaine Maxwell?" He is the host of Law&Crime podcast "Objections: with Adam Klasfeld."