Ahmaud Arbery Killing: Judge Rejects Hate Crime Plea Deal

ATLANTA — A federal judge on Monday threw out plea deals with the Justice Department for two of the three white men charged with hate crimes in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery after his family voiced fierce opposition to the deal.

It was a surprising and extraordinary twist in a case in which a 25-year-old black man was chased through a southern Georgia neighborhood by three white men and then shot dead. The plea deals would have been the first time either of the men admitted that Mr Arbery’s killing was racially motivated.

The three men had been convicted of murder in state court in November. Mr. Arbery’s family angrily objected to the federal plea deal because it would have sent at least two of them immediately to federal prison instead of state prison for up to up to 30 years old. Federal prison is generally considered safer than state prison.

US District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood’s decision to reject identical plea deals reached between the Justice Department and the two men, Travis McMichael, 36, and his father, Gregory McMichael, 66, means that the McMichaels could now see their federal government case in front of a jury as early as next week.

The third man involved in the prosecution, William Bryan, 52, was sentenced in state court to life with the possibility of parole. As of Monday night, there was no indication that he had reached a plea deal with the Justice Department.

Prosecutors had hoped the plea deals for the McMichaels would ensure the men would face lengthy prison sentences for Mr Arbery’s death, even in the unlikely possibility that their state murder convictions would be overturned on appeal. Their federal sentence would have run concurrently with their state sentences of life without the possibility of parole.

The agreement also would have barred the men from appealing their federal guilty pleas.

For members of Mr. Arbery’s family, that was not enough. In a courtroom in Brunswick, Georgia, near the scene of the murder, they spoke to Judge Wood about the lingering trauma of losing Mr Arbery, who was unarmed as he fled his pursuers on foot . And they argued passionately that men should not be allowed to choose what they saw as a less unpleasant prison option.

“I ask in the name of his family, in the name of his memory and in the name of fairness that you do not grant this appeal in order to allow these men to transfer custody from the State of Georgia to federal prisons, where they prefer to be,” Wanda Cooper-Jones said, referring to Mr. Arbery, her son.

Tara M. Lyons, an assistant United States attorney, argued that the plea deal included a public admission by Travis McMichael that the killing was racially motivated. “Travis McMichael admits one important aspect that we believe will allow some healing to begin,” she said.

But Judge Wood noted the deal was of a special kind that would require him to agree to its exact terms. “And after considering everything that’s been said today, and looking back at the law that governs these agreements, it’s my decision to reject the plea deal,” she said.

In a prepared statement, Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general, said late Monday that attorneys for the victim’s family told the Justice Department that the family “is not opposed” to the plea deals.

“The Department of Justice takes its obligation to speak with the Arbery family and their attorneys seriously, both under the Victims of Crime Rights Act and out of respect for the victim,” a- she declared.

S. Lee Merritt, lead attorney for Mr. Arbery’s estate, said Monday that the Justice Department had not informed the family or their attorneys that the deal would include a transfer to federal custody.

The Justice Department, he said, was “well aware” that the family “opposed such a condition”.

Paul Butler, a Georgetown law professor and former federal prosecutor, said it was rare for a victim’s family to convince a federal judge to reject a plea deal once it had been agreed.

Generally, Butler said, such agreements are viewed positively by federal judges and prosecutors. “The judge generally considers an agreed plea bargain to be efficient and fair,” he said, “and since most plea bargains include an agreement by the defendants not to appeal, it protects also the verdict, which is considered useful for both the prosecution and the court – because there is no chance that the verdict will be overturned.

Judge Wood has given the two men until Friday to decide whether they now wish to plead guilty.

Page Pate, a veteran lawyer from Georgia, said that by pleading guilty, the men could hope the judge would give them a less than life sentence, which is the maximum they could receive for the crimes charge. hateful.

But Mr Pate noted the family were at some risk in pushing for a trial. It may be difficult to convince a jury that the men were motivated by hate, even if prosecutors are able to prove that they have engaged in racist behavior in the past. In court on Monday, prosecutors noted that the truck Travis McMichael used to chase Mr. Arbery was adorned with a Confederate symbol, and an FBI agent said Travis McMichael’s cellphone contained racist messages referring to black people like “monkeys” and other insults.

Prosecutors also said that although Travis McMichael did not seek to harm a black person the morning he killed Mr Arbery, he made dangerous assumptions that he was a criminal based on the fact that he was black.

If the case goes to trial, the men also face an attempted kidnapping charge and Travis McMichael faces a weapons charge.

Those charges would have been dropped as part of the plea deal. And prosecutors noted that under the agreement, the defendants would have “admitted publicly, before the nation, that this offense was racially motivated.”

The case was widely seen as an act of racial violence. But at the state’s trial, prosecutors touched on racial dimensions lightly as they presented their case to an almost all-white jury.

During the murder trial, the McMichaels said they suspected Mr Arbery of property crimes in their neighborhood of Satilla Shores, outside of Brunswick. In video footage of the encounter, Mr Arbery could be seen running as his pursuers pursued him in two pickup trucks.

The chase ended when Mr. Arbery and young Mr. McMichael met in a violent confrontation. Mr Bryan captured the violence in a video clip which was widely circulated on the internet, sparking a national outcry and claims that the murder amounted to a modern-day lynching.

Lawyers for Travis McMichael – who fired his shotgun three times at Mr Arbery at close range – said he fired in self-defence.

A Georgia state investigator said Mr Bryan told authorities he heard Travis McMichael use a racial slur shortly after shooting Mr Arbery. Lawyers for Mr. McMichael in the state case disputed that claim.

On Sunday evening, Ms Cooper-Jones had said she opposed a plea deal in part because she wanted to end the self-defence argument and establish firmly that the men had been motivated by racism.

Katie Benner contributed report.

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