One of the three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man chased while running through a mostly white Georgia neighborhood, withdrew his guilty plea to federal hate-crime charges on Friday and will face trial next week alongside his two codefendants.
In a brief hearing in the U.S. District Court in Brunswick, Georgia on Friday, Travis McMichael said he would withdraw his guilty plea and proceed to trial on Monday alongside his father, Gregory McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan.
Gregory McMichael had reached a similar plea agreement with prosecutors but his lawyers told the court on Thursday that he would head to trial.
All three men were convicted last year in a separate state trial for the murder of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black jogging enthusiast they saw running through the Satilla Shores neighborhood in coastal Georgia in February 2020. A state judge sentenced all three men to life in prison, ruling that the two McMichaels would not be eligible for parole.
Travis McMichael, 36, had said at a hearing earlier this week that he was willing to plead guilty to attacking Arbery because of his “race and color” after reaching a plea agreement with prosecutors.
But he changed his mind after U.S. District Judge Lisa Wood rejected that agreement at a hearing on Monday. She said she could not accept it because it bound her to sentencing McMichael to 30 years in federal prison before he was handed back to the state of Georgia to serve out the rest of his life sentence for murder.
She said she needed more information to know whether a 30-year sentence was just, and cited emotional testimony from Arbery’s family.
Arbery’s mother and other relatives had pleaded with the judge to reject the plea agreement because they wanted the men to remain in the Georgia prison system. Federal prisons are generally perceived as more comfortable than those run by states.
They also said a trial was the best way of establishing that Arbery was pursued because he was Black.
Marcus Arbery briefly spoke to reporters outside the federal courthouse to say he saw next week’s a trial as a step toward justice for his son’s death.
Wood had warned the younger McMichael that if he pleaded guilty without a plea agreement or was convicted by a jury after trial she could end up giving him a sentence different than the 30-year one agreed to with prosecutors.
In the text of the rejected plea agreement, McMichael admitted for the first time that racism played a part in his decision to grab his shotgun, jump in his pick-up truck with his father and chase Arbery through the quiet looping streets of Satilla Shores.
Bryan’s shaky cellphone video of McMichael shooting Arbery at close range caused outrage when it emerged months later and the public learned that none of the three white men had been arrested.
News of the McMichaels’ plea agreements could come up in jury selection as it begins on Monday, and may extend the time it takes to seat impartial jurors. Rejected plea agreements cannot be admitted as evidence at trial according to federal court rules.
(Reporting by Rich McKay in Atlanta and Jonathan Allen in New York; Writing and additional reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Luc Cohen and Brendan O’Brien; editing by Jonathan Oatis, Gerry Doyle and Mark Porter)