The man who initiated the deadly chase that ended in the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery has reversed course and decided to plead not guilty to a federal hate crime in the 2020 killing of the unarmed black man, according to a legal filing late Thursday.
Greg McMichael’s decision came days after a U.S. District Court judge rejected terms of a plea deal that he and his son, Travis McMichael, had negotiated with prosecutors. That deal was met with passionate objections by Arbery’s parents. McMichael’s defense attorney said in a legal notice filed jointly with prosecutors that McMichael now plans to stand trial for a second time in Arbery’s death.
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. Separate from that case, the three white men also were indicted in U.S. District Court on charges that they 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 home just outside the port city of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.
Travis McMichael was scheduled for a plea hearing Friday morning to announce whether he would move forward with a guilty plea in the federal case. Jury selection in that case is set to begin Monday.
Both men had planned to plead guilty to a hate crime charge earlier this week after prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed on 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.
U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the deal Monday after Arbery’s parents objected, arguing 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.
The judge told the men that if they still decided to plead guilty she would not guarantee their 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 told the U.S. Justice Department that the family wouldn’t object to the plea deals.
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” 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.