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2 men convicted in Ahmaud Arbery's death reach a federal plea deal


The father and son convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia reached a deal with federal prosecutors. This plea deal is in a hate crime case that was supposed to go to trial next month. NPR's Debbie Elliott is covering this story and joins us now. Debbie, good morning.


INSKEEP: What's the information you've got?

ELLIOTT: Well, we know that the Justice Department late last night filed a notice of plea agreement basically alerting the federal court there in Brunswick, Ga., that the parties had reached a deal to dispose of these pending hate crime charges against the defendants, Travis and Greg McMichael. Now, the lawyers for the federal government asked the court to set up a hearing on the matter. Any deal must be approved by U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood. She had scheduled jury selection to begin next week, February 7, in this federal hate crimes case. Now there's a third defendant who was convicted of state murder charges as well. His name is William "Roddie" Bryan. There's been no indication of whether he is in any talks to also reach a plea agreement.

INSKEEP: I guess we should remember we're pretty clear on the facts here because there was a state - not a federal trial but a state trial where it was established that Ahmaud Arbery was killed in February of 2020. He was a Black man. He was running through a neighborhood in Brunswick, Ga., and three white men chased him with pickup trucks and shot him to death after some kind of a struggle. That was all established at the state trial.

ELLIOTT: Correct - all of it recorded on very disturbing cellphone video, which was the key evidence that won that conviction, which happened, like, the day before Thanksgiving. Travis and Greg McMichael and Roddie Bryan then were later sentenced to life in prison on those state murder charges. So what's different here is that this federal case is all about the fact that these men targeted Arbery because he was Black; at least, that's what the federal government alleges. There was no evidence of racial animus that was presented in that state case. This federal case was going to show - the prosecutors were going to try to show that the defendants used force and threats of force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery's right to use a public street because of his race.

INSKEEP: Well, what does Arbery's family think about this move that would at least raise the possibility of avoiding any trial at all and the suspects pleading guilty?

ELLIOTT: They're very upset about this. Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, says she feels like she's been betrayed by the U.S. Justice Department. In a statement that was released by her lawyer, Lee Merritt, last night, she said that the DOJ went behind her back to offer the men who murdered her son a deal to make their time in prison easier to serve. So Merritt is arguing here that this deal would somehow allow the McMichaels to enter federal custody and spend their first 30 years of their sentence in, quote, "preferred federal prison" rather than in a state lockup, something that he calls a huge accommodation to the men who hunted down and murdered Ahmaud Arbery - those are his words. The family says they're devastated, and they're going to be asking the federal judge to reject any proposed plea deal. So there was already a pretrial hearing scheduled for today. Perhaps we'll get more clarification on what's happening there. I've asked the DOJ for a response, but I have not heard back.

INSKEEP: Just to be clear, what you're just saying is the Arbery family's understanding of the plea deal. We're looking for more confirmed details of what the deal is, right, Debbie?

ELLIOTT: Correct.

INSKEEP: OK. That's NPR's Debbie Elliott with an update on news of a plea deal in the Ahmaud Arbery murder. Thanks so much.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.