Hate Crimes Trial to Proceed After Failed Plea Deal With Arbery’s Killers

ATLANTA — Gregory McMichael, one of Ahmaud Arbery’s three killers, reaffirmed his not guilty plea in a federal hate crimes case on Thursday after his proposed plea deal was thrown out by a judge, records show. judicial. Mr McMichael’s ruling all but guarantees he will face an upcoming trial which could highlight ugly expressions of racism that were not brought up in the state murder trial.

Mr McMichael, 66, along with his son Travis McMichael, 36, and their neighbor William Bryan, 52, were convicted in November of the murder of Mr Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, whom they chased around their neighborhood to a pair of trucks in February 2020. The pursuers, all white men, were each given life sentences in January.

The men were also charged with federal hate crimes and attempted kidnapping, for which they could also face life imprisonment. But heading into Monday, when jury selection is due to begin, the federal case has been rocked by a disagreement over plea deals McMichael recently reached with the Justice Department.

In a hearing in federal court in Brunswick, Georgia on Monday, Judge Lisa Godbey Wood threw out the deal the government had made with Travis McMichael, essentially nullifying her father’s identical deal as well.

The judge’s decision came after members of Mr Arbery’s family passionately criticized the deals in court. Mr Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, specifically objected to a key provision of the agreements that would have allowed the McMichaels to serve 30-year sentences in federal prison, as opposed to the state prison system of Georgia, which is generally considered more dangerous. .

On Thursday evening, Gregory McMichael’s attorney, AJ Balbo, and the Department of Justice filed a notice with the court saying that Mr McMichael’s plea agreement had been withdrawn and should be considered null and void.

“Lawyers respectfully announce that they are ready for trial on February 7, 2022,” the parties wrote.

It means that at least two of Mr. Arbery’s three killers now appear to be on trial: As of Thursday evening, the Justice Department had not filed any documents indicating that it had reached an agreement with Mr. Bryan. Travis McMichael is due in court Friday morning to tell the judge whether he will plead guilty or maintain his plea of ​​not guilty.

During the murder trial, prosecutors were reluctant to highlight the racial dimensions of the crime as they presented their case to an almost all-white jury, instead focusing on the ill-considered nature of the decisions the three white men made that day- the. The men had suspected Mr. Arbery of a series of burglaries in the neighborhood. After Mr. Arbery visited a house under construction – a house he had been to several times before – the McMichaels armed themselves and gave chase in a van, with Mr. Bryan taking part, in a separate truck.

After several minutes, the men used their trucks to surround Mr. Arbery. A clash ensued between Mr. Arbery and Travis McMichael, who shot Mr. Arbery three times with a shotgun at close range.

Evidence that the men harbored racist sentiments surfaced in motions and pre-trial hearings. A September 2020 filing in the state’s case said the state of Georgia collected evidence, including ‘racial’ Facebook posts and text messages from Travis McMichael and Mr. Bryan, and what was described such as a “Racial Johnny Rebel Facebook Post” and a Gregory McMichael “Identity Dixie Facebook Post”.

These cases and a number of others could now take center stage in the federal trial after the state jury had no opportunity to consider them. But some legal experts say it could prove difficult for federal prosecutors to secure hate crime convictions, even though there is no doubt the men made racist statements before prosecuting Mr. Arbery.

“It’s not just about proving they’re racist, or proving they killed Ahmaud Arbery without justification,” said Georgia lawyer and legal analyst Page Pate. “It proves that their racism is the reason why they killed Ahmaud Arbery.”

During Monday’s hearing, which focused on Travis McMichael’s proposed plea deal, the government expressed its nuanced position on how racism drives it.

“Travis McMichael did not belong to any hate group and did not undertake on February 23, 2020 to commit an act of violence against an African American person,” said Tara M. Lyons, Assistant United States Attorney for the District. South. from Georgia. “But he had made assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery that he wouldn’t have made if Ahmaud Arbery had been white.”

Travis McMichael’s attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, declined to comment Thursday night, as did J. Pete Theodocion, Mr. Bryan’s attorney.