A federal judge in Georgia rejected a deal Monday between federal prosecutors and at least one of the men who killed Ahmaud Arbery after the victim’s family objected to the plea bargain.
But Arbery’s family balked at the deals, particularly an agreement allowing the men to serve their hate crime sentences first in a federal penitentiary.
“Please listen to me. Please listen to me,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told the court. “Granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement … gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son.”
Both of his parents and other loved ones begged the judge to void the deal.
“Do the right thing, because there’s too much racism going on,” aunt Ruby Arbery said in court. “I’m asking you, judge, please look out for the Arbery and Cooper family.”
After hearing Arbery’s parents speak against the deal, U.S. District Judge Lisa Wood said she didn’t have enough information to approve it Monday and had no choice but to reject it.
“It is my decision to reject the plea agreement,” she said after she was presented with Travis McMichael’s plea bargain. “In this case, it is appropriate to hear at sentencing from all concerned, including the victim’s family.”
Wood said she didn’t know whether 30 years in federal prison was an appropriate sentence.
“I can’t say that 360 months is a precise … fair sentence in this case,” Wood said. “It could be more. It could be less. It could be that. But given the unique circumstances of this case and my desire to hear from all concerned regarding the sentencing before I pronounce sentence, I am not comfortable accepting the terms of the plea agreement.”
Prosecutor Tara Lyons said she had been led to believe the family supported the plea bargains.
“Prior to the signing and execution of those plea agreements, the attorneys for [the victim’s father] Marcus Arbery and [mother] Miss Wanda Cooper-Jones told the Department [of Justice] that the parents would not oppose a plea agreement,” Lyons told the judge. “On Sunday, yesterday, after several meetings, several videoconferences, it was apparent that that was not accurate.”
Lyonss added: “I’m not up here blaming the family, your honor.”
Despite the parents’ objections, Lyons still advocated for the plea bargain to be accepted. She said it would “powerfully advance the larger interest of justice” and allow for “some healing to begin.”
After Monday’s hearing, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said that she was satisfied with the court’s decision to “not accept the sentencing terms of the proposed plea and to continue the hearing until Friday.”
“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,” she said.
The filings Sunday name father Gregory McMichael and son Travis McMichael. The third convicted murderer in the case, neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, wasn’t mentioned.
Attorneys for Gregory and Travis McMichael asked for 48 hours to consult with their clients about their next move.
The men are charged in the federal case with hate crimes and attempted kidnapping. “Travis and Gregory McMichael were also charged with one count each of using, carrying, and brandishing — and in Travis’s case, discharging — a firearm during and in relation to a crime of violence,” the Justice Department said in April.
Their federal hate crimes trial is set to begin a week from Monday.
Travis McMichael, who fatally shot Arbery, Gregory McMichael and Bryan were found guilty of murder in a Georgia state court in November.
There was no indication in Sunday’s filings that an agreement had been reached with Bryan, who recorded cellphone video of the fatal encounter.
Travis McMichael and Gregory McMichael armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after they saw him running through their neighborhood of Satilla Shores in Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020.
Bryan joined the chase in a separate pickup. Arbery was eventually trapped between the two pickup trucks and ended up in a confrontation with Travis McMichael, who was armed with a shotgun.
All three men were sentenced to life in prison Jan. 7. Bryan will be eligible for parole after 30 years.
Dennis Romero contributed.