Speaking outside the courthouse after the verdict was announced, Wanda Cooper-Jones, mother of Ahmaud Arbery, called out the US Department of Justice for originally agreeing to accept a plea deal from her son’s killers in federal court.
“I now want to address the members of the DOJ. I’m very thankful that you guys brought these charges of hate crime, but back on January 31, you guys accepted a plea deal with these three murderers who took my son’s life,” Cooper-Jones said.
Cooper-Jones continued: “[Arbery’s father] Marcus and two of Ahmaud’s aunties stood before the courts and begged the judge not to take a plea deal. That the DOJ, that the DOJ went before the judge and asked them to take a plea deal with these guys.”
Cooper-Jones said that she spoke to DOJ prosecutors and “begged them” to not take the plea deal in the case.
“They ignored my cry. I begged them. Even after the family stood before the judge and asked them, asked the judge to not take this plea deal, the lead prosecutor, Tara Lyons, stood up and asked the judge to ignore the family’s cry. That’s not justice for Ahmaud.”
Arbery’s mother said that today’s verdict wouldn’t have happened “if it wasn’t for the fight that the family put up.”
“What the DOJ did today, they were made to do today. It wasn’t because of what they wanted to do. They were made to do their job today.”
Some more context: On Jan. 31, a federal judge rejected the plea deal reached by prosecutors and Travis McMichael on hate crime charges, an agreement that would have precluded his federal trial in Arbery’s killing.
McMichael had agreed to plead guilty to a single hate crime charge – interference with rights – in exchange for prosecutors recommending he serve 30 years in federal prison.
Under the agreement, McMichael, 36, would have been transferred from a state prison to federal custody.
After completing the federal sentence, he would’ve been returned to Georgia to finish his sentence of life in prison without parole. Five of those final years would have counted toward his supervised release from federal prison.
US District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said she was not comfortable with the sentencing guidelines.
After the plea deal was rejected, McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, changed their pleas from guilty to not guilty.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, was outraged by the proposed deal and said she felt betrayed by US Justice Department lawyers. She told the court a state judge gave the McMichaels exactly what they deserve – life in prison – and urged Wood not to accept the federal plea.
“Please listen to me,” Cooper-Jones told the judge. “Granting these men their preferred conditions of confinement would defeat me. It gives them one last chance to spit in my face after murdering my son.”
S. Lee Merritt, an attorney for Arbery’s mother, previously called federal prison “a country club compared to state prison,” saying the facilities are less populated, have better funding and are “generally more accommodating” than state holding facilities, according to tweets from his account.
The Arbery family was displeased prosecutors had agreed to the deal without the family’s consent, Merritt told CNN.
The Justice Department said she respected the court’s decision not to accept the plea agreement, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke said, but added in a statement that prosecutors “entered the plea agreement only after the victims’ attorneys informed me that the family was not opposed to it.”