(NEW YORK) — A plea deal that would have allowed a white man convicted in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery to serve a large part of his sentence in federal prison was rejected by a U.S. District Court judge on Monday.
Judge Lisa Godbey Wood’s decision to turn down Travis McMichael’s plea agreement with federal prosecutors came after Arbery’s parents and two aunts gave emotional statements asking the judge to reject the deal and proceed with a federal trial next week.
A second hearing on a plea deal the government’s attorneys negotiated with McMichael’s father, 66-year-old Gregory McMichael, was also scheduled to occur on Monday. However, since Godbey Wood said her decision would be the same in the elder McMichael’s case, Gregory McMichael’s lawyer said there was no need for a hearing.
Both men and their neighbor, 52-year-old William “Roddie” Bryan, were convicted on state murder charges in Arbery’s 2020 death. They were sentenced to life in prison. Travis and Gregory McMichael were sentenced without the possibility of parole.
A federal prosecutor told the judge during Monday’s hearing that the agreement called for the men to immediately be turned over to the Federal Bureau of Prisons to serve 30 years in a federal penitentiary before being returned to the Georgia Department of Corrections to serve the remainder of their sentence.
Godbey Wood gave both men the option to go forward with their guilty pleas and risk her giving them a harsher sentence than what they agreed to, or to withdraw their pleas and go to trial starting on Monday.
The judge gave them until Friday to decide.
Federal prosecutors filed notices of plea agreements for Travis McMichael, 35, and Gregory McMichael, on Sunday in U.S. District Court in Brunswick, Georgia, and requested Monday’s hearing for Godbey Wood to review the deal.
No plea agreement was announced for Bryan.
Prior to Monday’s hearing, Arbery’s relatives slammed the plea deal, alleging it was done behind their back.
“This proposed plea is a huge accommodation to the men who hunted down and murdered Ahmaud Arbery,” the family’s attorney, Lee Merritt, said in a statement. “The family is devastated at this development, their wishes are being completely ignored and they do not consent to these accommodations.”
Arbery was out for a jog on Feb. 23, 2020, in the Satilla shores neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia, when the McMichaels assumed he was a burglar, armed themselves and chased him in their pickup truck. Bryan joined the five-minute pursuit, blocking Arbery’s path with his truck and recorded Travis McMichael fatally shooting Arbery with a shotgun during a struggle on his cellphone.
Arbery’s parents, Wanda Cooper-Jones and Marcus Arbery, asked the federal court to be allowed to assert her right under federal law to oppose the plea deal directly before the court.
“The DOJ 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,” Cooper-Jones 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.”
During a news conference in Georgia on Monday, Merritt said Cooper-Jones and Arbery’s father will be allowed to speak at the hearing scheduled for 2 p.m. on Monday. Merritt said the parents plan to ask a federal judge to reject the plea deal.
When Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer convicted on state charges of murdering George Floyd, reached a plea agreement on federal charges that he violated Floyd’s civil rights, he asked to be sent to federal prison even though he is expected to serve more time than the 22 years he was sentenced to in state court.
In response to Chauvin’s plea deal, legal experts told ABC News that federal penitentiaries run by the Bureau of Prisons tend to better than state prisons. The experts said federal prisons have fewer overcrowding issues, more comfortable bunks and even better food and educational resources than often cash-strapped state prisons. High-profile inmates, especially former law enforcement officers like Chauvin and Gregory McMichael, tend to also get greater protection in federal prison, the experts said.
The federal Bureau of Prisons estimated that the annual cost of housing an inmate in a federal facility in 2020 was a little over $39,000.
The annual cost of housing an inmate in a Georgia state prison is roughly $20,000, according to a 2015 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research and policy organization.
“Federal prison is going to be a lighter sentence for these men,” Merritt said.
Merritt also cited an ongoing investigation by the Department of Justice into conditions at Georgia state prisons that was launched in September.
The DOJ said in a statement that the investigation is primarily focused on whether Georgia provides inmates reasonable protection from physical harm at the hands of other prisoners and staff.
Cooper-Jones said at Monday’s news conference that she finds the plea deal “disrespectful.”
“I fought so hard to get these guys in state prison,” Cooper-Jones said.
She said she learned of the deal on Sunday and has had discussions with DOJ attorneys since.
“I told them very, very adamantly I wanted them to go to state prison and do their time,” Cooper-Jones said.
In a separate news conference, Marcus Arbery said that finding out about the deal made him “mad as hell.”
He said his son’s death was a racially-motivated murder and “we want 100% justice, not half justice.”
He added, “I don’t want no chance of trying to make their lives easy.”
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