The man convicted of murder for shooting Ahmaud Arbery withdrew his guilty plea on a federal hate crime charge Friday, electing to stand trial for a second time in the 2020 killing of a Black man that became part of a larger national reckoning over racial injustice.
Travis McMichael reversed his plan to plead guilty in the federal case days after a US district court judge rejected the terms of a plea deal between defense attorneys and prosecutors that was met with passionate objections by Arbery’s parents.
Asked by US District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood for his decision, McMichael said: “I withdraw the plea.”
His father, Greg McMichael, backed down from a plan to plead guilty in a legal filing late Thursday. Wood said jury selection in the hate crimes trial will begin Monday.
The McMichaels and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, were convicted of murder in a Georgia state court last fall and sentenced to life in prison. Georgia lacked a hate crimes law at the time of the killing. The US Department of Justice had them indicted on charges that the three white men violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he was Black.
The McMichaels armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after spotting the 25-year-old man running past their house just outside the port city of Brunswick on 23 February 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.
The father and son had planned to plead guilty to a hate crime charge after prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed to propose a 30-year sentence that would include a request to transfer the McMichaels from Georgia’s state prison system to federal custody. The deal would have required the McMichaels to admit to racist motives and forfeit the right to appeal their federal sentence.
Wood rejected the deal Monday after Arbery’s parents argued that conditions in federal prison wouldn’t be as harsh. Wood said she ultimately denied the deal because it would have locked her into a specific sentence.
Prosecutors asked the judge to approve the plea deals despite the objections from Arbery’s family. Prosecutor Tara Lyons said that attorneys for Arbery’s parents had told the US justice department that the family wouldn’t object.
But Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother, said the slain man’s family had previously rejected the same terms and “no longer wanted to engage” with prosecutors, who “took that as a deferral”.
During the murder trial in state court, defense attorneys argued the McMichaels were justified in pursuing Arbery because they had a reasonable suspicion that he had committed crimes in their neighborhood. Travis McMichael testified that he opened fire with his shotgun after Arbery attacked him with fists and tried to grab the weapon.