A U.S. District Court judge has rejected a plea deal offered to a white father and son convicted of murdering Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery that would have them serve decades of their life sentences while in federal custody instead of a less desirable state facility.
Judge Lisa Godbey Wood nixed the deal for Gregory McMichael, 66, and his son Travis McMichael, 35, during a hearing Monday for the latter, after prosecutors filed a notice that a deal had been reached to avoid a federal trial slated to begin next week.
A hearing scheduled later Monday for the elder McMichael was canceled after the judge said her decision would be the same for both men.
Godbey Wood came to her decision after emotional statements from Arbery’s parents and family members, who vehemently opposed the deal.
The McMichaels and a neighbor, William “Roddy” Bryan, 52, all convicted last year of murdering Arbery in 2020, were sentenced earlier this month in a Georgia court to life sentences, though Bryan would be eligible for parole after 30 years.
The three men also face federal hate crime charges, though the deal struck with the prosecutors would have allowed the McMichaels to serve the first 30 years of their sentences in federal prison in exchange for admitting their actions were racially motivated.
Godbey Wood said the father and son have until Friday to decide whether to withdraw their guilty pleas and begin trial next Monday or risk receiving harsher sentences than the plea agreement called for.
No deal was announced for Bryan.
Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said that while the department respected the court’s decision, the plea deal was offered “only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it.”
“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,” Clarke said.
Before the judge’s decision Monday, Arbery’s family lashed out at the plea agreement that would have allowed Arbery’s killers to dodge the harsher conditions of a state prison for decades.
“The United States Department of Justice has gone behind my back to offer the men who murdered my son a deal to make their time in prison easier for them to serve,” Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, said in a statement. “I have made it clear at every possible moment that I do not agree to offer these men a plea deal of any kind. I have been completely betrayed by the DOJ lawyers.”
Family attorney S. Lee Merritt referred to federal prison as “a country club compared to state prison.” He said federal prisons are less populated, have better funding, and are “generally more accommodating” than state lockups.
The McMichaels received life sentences without the possibility for parole in a Glynn County, Georgia, court for murdering Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man jogging through their neighborhood.
The McMichaels and Bryan, who are all white, claimed they were attempting to confront Arbery about suspected burglaries and trespassing in their neighborhood.