Prosecutors strike hate-crime plea deals in Ahmaud Arbery killing
By Richard Fausset
Prosecutors have reached a plea deal with two of the three white men facing federal hate-crimes charges for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, 25, the Black man who was chased through a Georgia neighborhood and fatally shot, court documents show.
But Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, denounced the pleas. In an interview late Sunday, Cooper-Jones said of the federal prosecutors: “They went behind my back. I’m totally, totally upset. My anxiety is over the roof.”
She said that federal officials had asked her earlier if she approved of a deal, and that she had told them no. Cooper-Jones said she would try to persuade a judge to reject the plea agreements in a hearing Monday morning.
A jury in a Georgia state court found the three men — Gregory McMichael, 66, his son Travis McMichael, 35; and William Bryan, 52 — guilty of murder in November and sentenced them to life in prison this month. All three men were set to stand trial beginning Feb. 7 in federal court on hate-crime charges and attempted kidnapping, for which they faced possible additional life sentences. Travis McMichael, who fired a shotgun at Arbery, also faced a weapons charge.
On Sunday, federal prosecutors filed notice in U.S. District Court asking a judge to approve plea agreements for the McMichaels. Specific details about the plea deals were not included in the court filings. Nor was there any indication that an agreement had been struck with Bryan, who was involved in chasing Arbery through the neighborhood near Brunswick, Georgia, in February 2020.
During the murder trial, lawyers for Travis McMichael — who fired his shotgun at Arbery three times at close range — had said that he had fired in self-defense.
Cooper-Jones said she wanted the federal trial to take place in order to put the self-defense argument to rest and to firmly establish that the men had been motivated by racism.
Lawyers for the McMichaels and Bryan could not be reached Sunday, nor could an official with the Justice Department.
Arbery was unarmed when the three men chased him for several minutes through Satilla Shores, a middle-class neighborhood along Georgia’s southern coast. They said they had suspected Arbery of committing property crimes in the area. In video footage of the encounter, Arbery could be seen running as his pursuers chased him in two pickup trucks.
The chase ended when Arbery and the younger McMichael met in a violent clash. Bryan captured the violence on a video clip that was widely disseminated on the internet, leading to a national outcry and allegations that the killing had amounted to a modern-day lynching.
Prosecutors in the murder trial had considered introducing what they described as “racial” evidence, including inflammatory Facebook posts or text messages from the three men. But in the end, they touched only lightly on racial themes in making their case to the nearly all-white jury.
It is unclear which of these pieces of evidence, or others, might be introduced in the federal trial. In a pretrial hearing, state prosecutors read a text message from November 2019 in which Travis McMichael used a racist slur about Black people as he described the idea of shooting a “crackhead” with “gold teeth.”
In a federal court filing in late December, the lawyer for Bryan asked the court to exclude evidence that suggested Bryan had “racial animus” toward Black people, including racially insensitive text messages he had made around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and witness testimony “that would suggest Bryan did not approve of his adopted daughter dating an African American man.”
A Georgia state investigator has said that Bryan told the authorities that he heard Travis McMichael use a racist slur shortly after shooting Arbery. McMichael’s lawyers have disputed that claim.