SAVANNAH, Ga. – The white man who fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery after chasing the black man jogging in a Georgia neighborhood says he fears his fellow inmates will kill him if he is sent to state prison to serve life in prison for murder.
Travis McMichael, 36, faces sentencing Monday in US District Court following his conviction on federal hate crime charges in February. His defense attorney filed a legal motion Thursday asking the judge to keep McMichael in federal custody.
Attorney Amy Lee Copeland argued that McMichael has received “hundreds of threats” and will not be safe in a Georgia state prison system that is under investigation by the US Department of Justice amid concerns about violence between inmates. .
On February 23, 2020, McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael, armed themselves with weapons and got into a pickup truck to chase Arbery after he ran past their home outside the port city of Brunswick. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery with a shotgun.
Arbery’s murder became part of a broader national reckoning over racial injustice amid other high-profile killings of unarmed black people, including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Kentucky.
In Georgia, the McMichaels and Bryan were sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of Arbery’s murder in state court last fall. They have been held in a county jail in the custody of US Marshals since they were tried in February in federal court, where a jury convicted them of hate crimes. Each defendant now faces a possible second life sentence.
Once the men are sentenced Monday by US District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, the protocol would be to hand them over to the Georgia Department of Corrections to serve their prison sentences for murder. That’s because they were first arrested and tried by state authorities.
For Travis McMichael, “his concern is that he will be killed immediately when he is turned over to the state prison system to serve that sentence,” Copeland wrote in his sentencing request. “He has received numerous death threats that are credible in light of all the circumstances.”
Copeland said he alerted the Georgia corrections agency, “which responded that these threats are unverified and that they can safely house McMichael in state custody.”
Greg McMichael, 66, also asked the judge to jail him in a federal prison instead of a state prison, citing safety and health concerns.
Arbery’s family has insisted that the McMichaels and Bryans serve their sentences in state prison, arguing that a federal penitentiary would not be as harsh. His parents vigorously objected before the federal trial when both McMichaels sought a plea deal that would have included a request to transfer them to federal prison. The judge ended up rejecting the plea deal.
“Giving these men their preferred option of confinement would defeat me,” Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told the judge at a Jan. 31 hearing. “It gives them one last chance to spit in my face.”
A federal judge does not have the authority to order a state to relinquish legal custody of inmates to the federal Bureau of Prisons, said Ed Tarver, an Augusta attorney and former US attorney for the Southern District of Georgia.
“She can certainly make that request,” Tarver said of the judge, “and it would be up to the state Department of Corrections whether or not to agree to do so.”
Copeland’s court filing refers to a prior agreement between the judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys to hold the McMichaels and Bryan in federal custody “until the completion of the federal trial and any post-trial proceedings.” He argued that means Travis McMichael should at least remain in federal custody through appeals of his hate crime conviction.