A U.S. judge in Georgia rejected a plea agreement reached between federal prosecutors and one of the three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, saying she was not willing to be bound to the 30-year federal prison sentence delineated in the agreement.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Lisa Wood came after Travis McMichael admitted for the first time he had pursued the 25-year-old Black man because of his race.
McMichael was attempting to change his plea to guilty in the U.S. District Court in Brunswick, Ga., to using a gun in his attempt to apprehend Arbery because of his “race and colour,” resulting in Arbery’s death.
His father, Gregory McMichael, had also been due to plead guilty as part of an agreement at a subsequent hearing on Monday.
The McMichaels were convicted of murder last November in a state court in Brunswick alongside their neighbour William “Roddie” Bryan.
State prosecutors said the men “assumed the worst” about the Black man running through their neighborhood, unfairly thinking he must have been fleeing some crime when they chased him down in pickup trucks before cornering and shooting him in February 2020.
In rejecting the federal agreement, Wood acknowledged emotional testimony on Monday by Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, and other relatives who begged the judge not to accept the plea.
They said they were alarmed by the part of the agreement in which prosecutors said they would recommend McMichael be transferred to a federal prison for 30 years before returning him to the custody of the Georgia prison system for the rest of his life. Federal prisons are generally perceived as less brutal environments than typical state prisons.
“Please listen to me: granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement will defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son,” Cooper-Jones told the court. “The state of Georgia already gave these men exactly what they deserve. Please leave it that way.”
Judges rarely reject plea agreements. Rejections can occur if judges believe the agreements do not adequately address the nature of the crimes, the rights of victims, or the interests of the public.
Wood said that under the plea agreement before her on Monday she would be bound to accept the 30-year federal sentence, and that she needed to know more information before she could decide if that was a just sentence.
Prosecutors asked for 48 hours to respond to the court’s decision, and the judge advised that in the interim, the trial for both McMichaels could be expected to proceed on Monday.
Arbery’s killing sparked national outrage when cellphone video taken by Bryan of the shooting emerged months later and the public learned that local authorities had declined to arrest his pursuers.
Earlier in the hearing, Travis McMichael admitted he had shared racist sentiments in text messages and social media posts for many years.
“Defendant Travis McMichael did not belong to any hate groups and did not set out on Feb. 23, 2020, to carry out an act of violence against an African-American person,” said the plea agreement, which was read aloud in court. “But he had made assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery that he would not have made if Ahmaud Arbery had been white.”
McMichael admitted that in his messages he had associated Black skin “with criminality,” and that he had supported vigilante efforts to harm or kill Black people, “particularly those he saw as criminal.”
Prosecutors also called an FBI agent to the stand, who testified that a search of McMichael’s cellphone showed he frequently referred to Black people as “monkeys,” “savages” and other racist slurs.
No notice was made of a plea agreement with Bryan, who is also due to stand trial on Feb. 7. Bryan’s lawyer did not respond to requests for comment.