Why a Judge Rejected the McMichael Plea Deal?

By Aron Solomon

Last Monday, a Federal court judge rejected a plea deal for Travis McMichael, the man convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in what has widely been described as a modern-day lynching.

As the Associated Press reported on Monday, the judge’s decision came hours after prosecutors gave notice to the court that Greg and Trais McMichael – father and son – had agreed to plead guilty to hate crime charges that they killed Ahmaud Arbery because he was Black.

So why did the judge reject the plea deal here? In part because it was the wishes of Mr. Arbery’s family. While the McMicahels were sentenced in January to life in prison, the Arbery family wants the McMichaels to serve their time in Georgia State Prison, not federal prison, which the plea agreement would have allowed them to do.

Mr. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, asked the court:

“Please listen to me: granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement will defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son.”
She added: “The state of Georgia already gave these men exactly what they deserve. Please leave it that way.”

Adriana Gonzalez, a South Florida lawyer, argues that District Court judge, Lisa Wood, did the right thing here:

“The court is absolutely right to hear the wishes of the Arbery family as a factor in helping decide whether to accept any plea deal. In asserting that it was the family’s desire to have the McMichaels serve their time in Georgia state prison rather than federal prison, Mr. Arbery’s mother’s input may have influenced the judge’s perspective on the plea deal.”

Critics of this plea agreement saw it as a backroom deal to ensure that the decades the McMichaels will need to serve would be done in significantly easier circumstances. While Black people in Georgia represent just over 30% of the population, close to two-third of inmates in Georgia state prisons, regarded as being among the most violent prisons in the nation, are Black.

In the family statement, Cooper-Jones reasserted their position moving forward:

“I have made it clear at every possible moment that I do not agree to offer these men a plea deal of any kind. I have been completely betrayed by the DOJ’s lawyers.”

Nothing in Judge Wood’s decision here was out of the ordinary absent the emotionally-charged circumstances following Mr. Arbery’s brutal burder. Federal court judges consider a range of factors in deciding whether to accept a plea bargain. These include the facts of the case, the interests of the victim’s family, and the public interest. In looking at the totality of these factors, Judge Wood did what any reasonable federal judge would do in this situation.
This leads us to the next steps in this case, which is a hate crimes trial for the McMichaels, which has been scheduled to start next week. Monday’s hearing will continue on Friday, with case details to be settled then. The McMichaels have until Friday to decide whether they want to plead guilty or change their minds and plead not guilty.

About Aron Solomon
Aron Solomon, JD, is the Chief Legal Analyst for Esquire Digital and the Editor of Today’s Esquire. He has taught entrepreneurship at McGill University and the University of Pennsylvania, and was elected to Fastcase 50, recognizing the top 50 legal innovators in the world. Aron has been featured in CBS News, CNBC, USA Today, ESPN, TechCrunch, The Hill, BuzzFeed, Fortune, Venture Beat, The Independent, Fortune China, Yahoo!, ABA Journal, Law.com, The Boston Globe, NewsBreak, and many other leading publications.

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