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Federal judge rejects plea deal for Ahmaud Arbery killer

Russ Bynum
The Associated Press

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — A federal judge rejected a plea agreement Monday that would have averted a hate crimes trial for the man convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.

Arbery’s parents denounced the proposed deal for Travis McMichael, with mother Wanda Cooper-Jones and father Marcus Arbery emotionally asking the judge to reject agreements filed for McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael.

In rejecting the deal, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said it would have locked her into specific terms — including 30 years in federal prison — at sentencing. Wood said that in this case it would only be appropriate to consider the family’s wishes at sentencing, which the proposed deal wouldn’t allow.

Travis and his lawyer asked for a 10-minute break to discuss whether he moves ahead with pleading guilty. The judge had yet to rule on his father’s proposed deal.

‘No half justice’: Marcus Arbery told reporters outside the federal courthouse in Brunswick that he’s “mad as hell” over the deal, which lawyer Lee Merritt said could enable Travis and Greg McMichael to spend the first 30 years of their life sen­tences in federal prison, rather than state prison where conditions are tougher.

“Ahmaud is a kid you cannot replace,” Arbery said. “He was killed racially and we want 100% justice, not no half justice.”

Cooper-Jones described the U.S. Justice Department’s decision to propose the plea deal despite her objections as “disrespectful.”

“I fought so hard to get these guys in the state prison,” she said. “I told them very, very adamantly that I wanted them to go to state prison and do their time. … Then I got up this morning and found out they had accepted this ridiculous plea.”

Wood continued preparations to summon the first 50 potential jurors to the courthouse on Feb. 7 for questioning.

The proposed plea agreements were filed with the court late Sunday. There was no mention of a deal with their co-defendant, William “Roddie” Bryan. No details were disclosed in court Monday morning. Federal prosecutors didn’t mention the deals in the court’s morning session.

Federal deals would not affect state murder convictions in Arbery’s killing. All three men were sentenced to life in prison on Jan. 7 after a trial last fall.

Hate crimes alleged: The hate crime charges accuse McMichaels and Bryan of violating the 25-year-old Black man’s civil rights by chasing him through their neighborhood in coastal Georgia on Feb. 23, 2020. The McMichaels armed themselves and pursued Arbery in one pickup truck while Bryan joined the chase in another and recorded video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.

A national outcry erupted when the graphic video leaked online two months later. Georgia was one of just four U.S. states without a hate crimes law at the time. Legislators quickly approved one, but it came too late for state hate crime charges in Arbery’s killing.

During the state trial in Glynn County Superior Court, the defense argued that the white men had authority to chase Arbery because they reasonably suspected he had been committing crimes in their neighborhood. Travis McMichael testified he opened fire only after Arbery attacked him with fists and tried to grab his shotgun.

The federal judge ordered that a jury pool be chosen from throughout the Southern District of Georgia, which covers 43 counties, to improve odds of seating a fair and unbiased jury.