Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, reacts to the guilty verdict at the November trial of three white men who murdered her son. Photo by Stephen B. Morton-Pool/Getty Images

Nothing Less Than Justice

In a rare move against privilege and for equity, a judge has rejected a federal plea deal for the three racist thugs who murdered Ahmaud Arbery for jogging while black. The deal, which Arbery's parents had denounced as "a betrayal," would have averted the men's upcoming hate crime trial and allowed them to do their time in a cushier federal prison instead of the harsher state prison. Arbery's mother, who's fought fiercely for justice for her son, urged the judge not to grant them "their preferred choice of confinement." Ahmaud, she noted, "did not get an option of a plea."

In a rare move against white privilege and for racial equity, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood has rejected a federal plea deal for the three white thugs who murdered Ahmaud Arbery for jogging while black; her ruling came after Arbery's mother, who's fought fiercely for justice for her son, denounced the deal as "a betrayal." In November, Travis McMichael, his father Greg, and their neighbor William Bryan were convicted by an almost all-white jury of chasing, trapping and killing Arbery, 25, in their Georgia neighborhood in February 2020; last month, they were all sentenced to life in prison. But with the men also facing a federal hate crimes trial next week - any convictions there would be immune from pardons from future wingnut governors - Department of Justice prosecutors suddenly struck a deal to allow at least the McMichaels to serve somewhat cushier time. In exchange for skipping that trial and pleading guilty to one hate crime - killing Arbery simply because he was black - the men could do 30 years in a slightly more civilized federal prison, likely safer especially for the elder McMichaels as a former cop, rather than the hell-holes that are most Georgia prisons; only after that would they be transferred back to the state system.
By pleading guilty to one count of killing Arbery out of "racial animosity," the McMichaels would thus avert a federal trial expected to expose and put on record ugly truths about them. Prosecutors have cited "years" of racist social media posts by Travis, who "associated black skin with criminality" and regularly used "savage," "monkey," and "nigger" to describe African-Americans, never mind the Confederate flags he often posted. Then again, none of that comes as much of a surprise. "Anybody with some common sense can see this was a racial hate crime," says Ahmaud's father Marcus Arbery. "The facts are there. The whole world saw what happened." As to the evidence from Travis: "This man here hated black people so much he didn't want to be around them. What's that for? Black people aren't going nowhere. We're going to be here. God created us to be here on this earth. So the world can do without you." The proffered plea deal, he said, made him "mad as hell. We want 100% justice, not half justice." Arbery family attorney Lee Merritt likewise dismissed it as "a back room deal" the parents had already rejected, and a "huge accomodation." "Federal prison is a country club when compared to state prison," he said. "In essence they get to publicly brag about their hatred & then be rewarded by the federal government...We will not allow it."
Judge Wood's ruling came hours after wrenching testimony from Arbery's mother Wanda Cooper-Jones, who charged the DOJ had "gone behind my back to offer the men who murdered my son a deal to make their time in prison easier for them to serve." Having long worked to ensure Ahmaud's killers get the righteous punishment they deserve, and having often had to bury her head during their state testimony - "Believe me, I've heard enough from these men" - Cooper-Jones direclty asked the judge not to allow the deal. "Please listen to me," she said. "Granting these men their preferred choice of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face." "They killed my son because he's a Black man...Ahmaud was killed. Ahmaud was hunted down," she said, urging Wood not to "take away the victory I prayed and fought for." "It is not right. It is not fair. It is not just," she said. "Ahmaud did not get an option of a plea." On Twitter, many agreed, demanding, "Nothing less than justice" for Arbery and asking, "Since when do convicted murderers get to choose the hole they rot in?" - especially those of color. Wood ultimately concurred, taking the rare step of rejecting the plea because it locks her into a sentence and she felt Ahmaud's family deserves a say in his killers' fate. Their new trial starts Feb. 7; by Friday, she said, they must decide if they'll still plead guilty to what in grim fact they're manifestly guilty of.

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