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Judge rejects a plea deal on federal hate crime charges in Arbery's murder

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A federal judge is denying a plea deal in a hate crimes case concerning the killing of Ahmaud Arbery. A Georgia state court previously convicted three white men of murder. Two of them were ready to plead guilty to separate federal hate crime charges when a judge yesterday rejected the terms. NPR's Debbie Elliott is covering the story. Debbie, good morning.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What unfolded in court yesterday?

ELLIOTT: Well, Travis McMichael entered a guilty plea. His father, Gregory, was ready to do the same. And the federal prosecutor, Tara Lyons, described what the government offered the McMichaels in exchange for them admitting that this killing was racially motivated. According to the deal, the McMichaels would have been sentenced to 30 years in federal prison to be served during the first stretch of their life sentence from the state of Georgia. That is what had Arbery's family so upset. And they spoke up and urged the judge to reject that.

INSKEEP: Wouldn't it normally be that the family in a case like this would be consulted on the way to the plea deal?

ELLIOTT: You would think so. And the Department of Justice says it did confer with the Arbery family and their lawyers before signing the proposed agreement. A statement from Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke says DOJ entered the deal, quote, "only after the victims' attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it." But we heard a completely different take from Arbery's family members in a very emotional part of this hearing. His mom, Wanda Cooper-Jones, said no one asked for her consent. She said the men got exactly what they deserved, being locked away for life in state prison for hunting down her son with pickup trucks and killing him. She said it's not fair to give them their preferred confinement in federal custody, which the family thinks would make their punishment, you know, easier on them. After the hearing, she told WSB the deal was disrespectful.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANDA COOPER-JONES: I fought so hard to get these guys in state prison. I told them very, very adamantly that I wanted them to go to state prison.

INSKEEP: And so the judges rejected the deal. What now?

ELLIOTT: Well, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said she would still, you know, be willing to accept guilty pleas from the McMichaels. But she did not like the idea of being locked into the sentencing terms that the federal government had arranged. So she gave the McMichaels until Friday. There's a hearing Friday. And they can decide now whether they continue with the guilty pleas and that - you know, subject to whatever her sentencing judgment would be - or they would face trial. And jury selection for that trial is set to begin on Monday.

INSKEEP: Suppose jury selection goes ahead, what would a federal hate crimes trial be like in this case?

ELLIOTT: Well, the basic facts are the same as the trial, you know, we covered last year when they were convicted of the state charges. This murder was documented on cellphone video, recorded by the third defendant, William Roddie Bryan. We have not heard any plea deals mentioned for him thus far. That video, if you recall, shows the men chasing Arbery with pickup trucks, cornering him. And then Travis McMichael shoots him with a shotgun in a struggle. The federal case will get into the motivation of the crime, using a cellphone messages and social media posts and other things to show racial animus. An FBI investigator told the court during this hearing yesterday that Travis McMichael had frequently used racial slurs. Now, community leaders in Brunswick are telling me that it's really important to establish racism here - that these men weren't just trying to protect their neighborhood, as they argued, but that they targeted Arbery because he was a Black man in a place they did not think he had a right to be, out for a run on a public street.

INSKEEP: Well, we'll find out soon if, in fact, that case will be argued in court or averted by some kind of other plea deal. Debbie, thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: NPR's Debbie Elliott.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRISTIAN SCOTT ATUNDE ADJUAH'S "AVENGHER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.