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'Ahmaud didn't get an option of a plea': Ahmaud Arbery's family implore judge to deny plea deals for McMichaels

U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the plea deals for both of the McMichaels Monday in the federal hate crimes case.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — It was a win in court Monday for the family of Ahmaud Arbery in a fight they said they didn't know they'd be in.

A federal judge rejected a plea deal in the federal hate crimes case for two of the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, Gregory and Travis McMichael. The deal would've let the McMichaels serve the first 30 years of their sentences in a federal prison instead of a state penitentiary. 

In turn, they'd plead guilty and admit the crime was motivated by racial hatred. Both were sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole earlier this month after a jury convicted them of murder in the state case in November.

RELATED: Federal judge rejects plea deal that would have averted hate crimes trial for 2 of Ahmaud Arbery's killers

Arbery's family said they were in talks with the Department of Justice Sunday, but said they expressed they were against the plea deal and they ended talks without an agreement. They were visibly upset in court Monday. Lee Merritt, Arbery's mother's attorney, spoke briefly with prosecutors before the pretrial hearing. 

The family said later prosecutors apologized for what they called confusion.

"It's disrespectful," Wanda Cooper Jones, Arbery's mother, said. "I fought so hard to get these guys in the state prison and I told them very, very adamantly that I wanted them to go to state prison and do their time that Judge Walmsley gave them on the seventh of January then I got up this morning and saw that they had accepted this ridiculous plea."

Credit: First Coast News

"Mad as hell because they’re trying to do some undercover stuff on me and the mama that we didn’t know anything about, a plea deal that we didn’t agree with that," Marcus Arbery Sr., Arbery's father, said.

Merritt said prosecutors tried to convince Arbery's parents that the deal would make it more difficult for the McMichaels to appeal the state sentences.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Tara Lyons told the judge Travis and Gregory McMichael publicly admitting they were motivated by racial hate "powerfully advances the larger interests of justice ... publicly confessing to the world that this crime wouldn't have happened if he wasn't Black." 

Lyons went on to tell the judge the following. 

“The Department of Justice, the Southern District of Georgia, the attorneys sitting at this table are dedicated to justice for Ahmaud Arbery and the Arbery family. After arriving in Brunswick, Georgia, on the 20th, on January 28, the plea agreement with Travis and Gregory McMichael had been signed Friday," she said.

RELATED: Ahmaud Arbery's parents say DOJ 'betrays' their trust with plea deal in federal case for 2 men convicted of Arbery's murder

"Prior to the signing and execution of those plea agreements, the attorneys for Marcus Arbery and Ms. Wanda Cooper-Jones told the Department that the parents would not oppose a plea agreement. On a Sunday, yesterday, after several meetings, several videos, video conferences, it was apparent that that was not accurate. I’m not up here blaming the family, your honor," Lyons said.

Lyons also said as a Black mother with a son, she understands how the family feels, and said she'd feel the same way if this were her son. Ultimately, however, she said she had to leave her emotions at the door, and believed the deal would've been justice for Arbery. 

Cooper Jones was seen shaking her head in disagreement as Lyons said family attorneys told the Department Arbery's parents wouldn't oppose a plea deal. When asked about this after court Monday, here's how Merritt responded.

"They offered us the same plea that they offered us prior to this ... [offered in early January]. The family made clear that they were not interested in that plea deal. The family no longer wanted to engage with them concerning that point. They had had their answer. They took that as a deferral," Merritt said.

Prior to Lyons giving those statements in court, special agents from the FBI and the GBI testified. The FBI agent testified Travis McMichael's text and social media records showed he used racial slurs frequently, associated Black people with crime and expressed a desire to see Black people harmed. Arbery's family audibly gasped at this testimony. 

Lyons told the judge Travis McMichael "willfully interfered" with Arbery's rights because of Arbery's race. 

"He made assumptions about Ahmaud Arbery that he wouldn't have made if Ahmaud Arbery were white," Lyons said.

GBI Special Agent Richard Dial also walked the court through the pursuit the day of the shooting. Arbery's father and aunts left prior to video of the shooting being played, visibly upset.

Later in the proceeding, Arbery's mother, father and two of his aunts gave emotional speeches asking the judge to reject the plea deal. Arbery's family told the judge the men didn't deserve special accommodations, and that they should be housed in prison in the same state where Arbery lived, and where he died. 

Cooper Jones told the judge, "Ahmaud didn't get an option of a plea." She told the judge she has heard enough from Travis McMichael, and said his "smug, detached testimony echoed" into 2022. Cooper Jones continued, saying it wasn't fair to take away her victory, referring to the state conviction and sentences for the men. 

Credit: First Coast News
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected the plea deals for both of the McMichaels Monday in the federal hate crimes case.

After hearing the speeches from Arbery's family, and from the defense and the prosecution, the judge denied the terms of the plea. She said she didn't agree with the stipulations, particularly that it locks her into the 30 year sentence. 

“I think the judge listened to the family members. I spoke first and then the father and then his aunties and I think that she took the time and she listened to us," Cooper Jones said following court Monday.

Wood accepted the McMichaels' pleas of guilty. They have until Friday to withdraw their pleas, meaning they'd head to trial next week. If they don't withdraw their pleas, there's no set sentence for them yet.

Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke issued this statement following the ruling.

“We respect the court’s decision to not accept the sentencing terms of the proposed plea and to continue the hearing until Friday. The Justice Department takes seriously its obligation to confer with the Arbery family and their lawyers both pursuant to the Crime Victim Rights Act and out of respect for the victim. Before signing the proposed agreement reflecting the defendants’ confessions to federal hate crimes charges, the Civil Rights Division consulted with the victims’ attorneys. The Justice Department entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it.”

A plea deal wasn’t proposed for the third man convicted of murdering Arbery, William Roddie Bryan.

The judge announced during the pretrial hearing before the proceedings dealing with the plea deals there will be a public phone line for people who can't attend the trial to call into, but no reproduction of the sound can be used. 

She also said the magistrate judge denied Bryan's attorney's motion to exclude evidence including racist text messages Roddie is alleged to have sent and/or received. 

Jury selection is set to start Feb. 7.

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