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‘I Am Not Comfortable with Accepting the Terms’: Federal Judge Rejects Plea Deal in Civil Rights Case of Ahmaud Arbery’s Convicted Murderers


Travis McMichael defense closings

A federal judge on Monday rejected the proposed plea agreements of Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael, which would have admissions that their murder of Ahmaud Arbery was racially motivated.

Before the agreement was scuttled, the Arbery family passionately urged the court to reject the plea deal, which would have transferred them from state to a preferred federal custody for the first 30 years of their life sentences.

“Having considered all that was said today, and looking at the law that governs these agreements, it is my decision to reject the plea agreement in this case,” U.S. District Judge Lisa G. Wood said.

“I am not comfortable with accepting the terms of the plea agreement,” she added.

The agreements asked the court to impose a 30-year sentence on each McMichael, which would have included a “hate crime enhancement.” Those terms would have run concurrently to the life sentences the two are already serving as a result of their murder convictions in state court in Georgia.

Since the judge rejected the terms of the agreement, Travis McMichael’s counsel requested time until Friday to consider whether to move ahead with a guilty plea that he tried to enter earlier in the day.

If the McMichaels do not plead guilty, they will go to trial next Monday, Feb. 7.

In a statement, the Justice Department’s civil rights chief Kristen Clarke—the first Black woman to hold that post—blamed the extraordinary loggerheads between prosecutors and the victims’ family on a miscommunication by their lawyers.

“We respect the court’s decision to not accept the sentencing terms of the proposed plea and to continue the hearing until Friday,” Clarke wrote in a statement. “The Justice Department takes seriously its obligation to confer with the Arbery family and their lawyers both pursuant to the Crime Victim Rights Act and out of respect for the victim. Before signing the proposed agreement reflecting the defendants’ confessions to federal hate crimes charges, the Civil Rights Division consulted with the victims’ attorneys. The Justice Department entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it.”

“Associated Black Skin with Criminality”

During proceedings on Monday afternoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara M. Lyons told the court that gunman Travis McMichael’s racial motivations were established in part by the license plate emblazoned on McMichael’s truck, an old Georgia flag that encompassed the Confederate flag.

Though she said that McMichael did not belong to any hate groups, Lyons said: “He had made assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery that he would not have made, if Ahmaud Arbery had been white.”

She added that McMichael “associated black skin with criminality.”

Ahmaud Arbery

Ahmaud Arbery. (Image via Attorney Benjamin Crump)

“While race and color need not be the sole cause of a defendant’s actions [under the statute], they must be a ‘but-for’ cause,” Lyons noted, adding that this fit the facts of the case.

Georgia Bureau of Investigation assistant special agent in charge Richard Dial testified in support of the government during the proceedings. Dial backed up what Arbery’s family said about the slain 25-year-old’s passion for running, which he was doing right before the McMichaels murdered him.

“How often did he run?” the prosecutor asked, referring to Arbery.

“Just about every day,” Dial responded.

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, describing the so-called emergency as a “Black male running down the street.”

Later in the proceedings, an FBI agent testified that they 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.

The McMichaels had confirmed that they wished to enter into the agreements knowingly and voluntarily.

“For Once, Listen to Me”

The family of the victim, however, fought that outcome every step of the way.

Earlier on Monday, Arbery’s family announced that it “vehemently” opposed the agreement, which would allow the McMichaels to “enter federal custody and serve the first 30 years of their sentence in a preferred Federal prison.”

“This proposed plea is a huge accommodation to the men who hunted down and murdered Ahmaud Arbery,” their attorney Lee Merritt wrote in a statement. “The family is devastated at this development, their wishes are being completely ignored and they do not consent to these accommodations.”

Arbery’s mother Wanda CooperJones echoed that sentiment in an emotional statement.

“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,” Cooper Jones told the court, noting that the men “prefer to be” in federal custody.

Young Ahmaud Arbery with his father Marcus Arbery and mother Wanda Cooper-Jones

Young Ahmaud Arbery with his father Marcus Arbery and mother Wanda Cooper-Jones

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

Referring to McMichael’s testimony in a Georgia court, Cooper-Jones added: “His words followed me through the Christmas holiday,” which she noted was the second she spent without her son.

“For once, listen to me,” the mother said.  “It is not right. It is not just. It is wrong. Please listen to me.”

She added: “The state of Georgia already gave these men exactly what they deserve.”

Father Marcus Arbery made clear that he agreed.

“They killed my son because he’s a Black man,” the father said, calling the guilty pleas an accommodation that they did not deserve.

Lyons, the prosecutor, said that the proposed resolution “powerfully advances the larger interest of justice.”

That would be “admitting publicly before the nation that this offense was racially motivated,” she noted.

She added that such an admission would be admissible against them in any court of law. Since the agreement includes a waiver of any federal appeal, the prosecutor notes, the plea deal ensures that the McMichaels would be incarcerated regardless of the outcome of any state appeal.

“I understand the anger, the pain and the struggle that the family is feeling with this resolution,” Lyons said, adding that she understands the family’s distrust of law enforcement and the justice system given the history of the case.

On the first anniversary of Arbery’s death, Arbery’s mother filed a civil lawsuit accusing Glynn County law enforcement of a cover up of her son’s killing. The McMichaels were not charged until months after Arbery’s murder on Feb. 23, 2020.

That prosecution was sparked by the release of footage by a lawyer who consulted with killers, believing the video would support their claim of self-defense. Instead, the video galvanized a movement, sparking protests by Black Lives Matter activists and an investigation by Georgia state authorities. The men were charged soon after the disclosure.

Update—Jan. 31 at 6:10 p.m. Eastern Time: This story has been updated to include a statement by Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke.

(Photo via Law&Crime’s coverage of the state court trial of the McMichaels)

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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."