ATLANTA — The white man who initiated the neighborhood chase that resulted in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery is asking a federal judge to show leniency when he's sentenced next week for a federal hate crime conviction.
While Greg McMichael deserves “a substantial period of incarceration,” his defense attorney said in a legal filing, he should be spared a life sentence — though he has already been sentenced to life without parole on a separate murder conviction. McMichael also wants the judge to transfer him to a federal prison so that he avoids serving time for Arbery's murder in Georgia's state prison system, which can't ensure his safety from attacks by other inmates, the lawyer said.
McMichael, 66, is scheduled to be sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court along with his adult son, Travis McMichael, and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan. A jury convicted all three in February of committing hate crimes, concluding 25-year-old Arbery had been targeted because he was Black.
The McMichaels armed themselves with guns and jumped in a pickup truck to chase Arbery after they spotted him running in their neighborhood outside the port city of Brunswick on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.
The McMichaels said they suspected Arbery was a burglar, though investigators determined he was unarmed and had committed no crimes when he was killed. Still, no one was charged until more than two months later, when the graphic video of the shooting leaked online and sparked a national outcry.
The McMichaels and Bryan each face the possibility of an additional life sentence when U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood decides their punishment. They have appealed their November convictions and life sentences for Arbery's murder in state court, hoping to get them overturned.
Greg McMichael's defense attorney, A.J. Balbo, in his legal filing Monday didn't downplay the seriousness of the federal hate crimes case.
“It involved the gruesome and altogether avoidable death of a young man whose last moments are preserved forever in haunting video,” Balbo wrote. "It showcased repugnant text messages and postings that displayed a racist bent that, even after decades of societal progress, still clings to some.”
Still, Balbo asked the judge to show some leniency in sentencing Greg McMichael to 20 years in prison, arguing that his punishment shouldn't exceed what former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin received in a different federal court for the killing of George Floyd. Chauvin got a 21-year sentence last month after pleading guilty to violating Floyd's civil rights.
The defense lawyer also asked the judge to order Greg McMichael into the custody of the federal Bureau of Prisons to ensure his “physical safety.” He noted the Justice Department launched an investigation last year into Georgia state prisons with an emphasis on violence between inmates.
“He should not be sent to a state prison system whose very operation may enable inmates to engage in dangerous and even deadly activity,” Balbo wrote.
Arbery's family has insisted the McMichaels and Bryan should serve their sentences in a state prison, arguing a federal penitentiary wouldn't be as tough. His parents objected forcefully 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 agreement.
“Granting these men their preferred choice of confinement would defeat me," Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told the judge at a hearing Jan. 31. "It gives them one last chance to spit in my face.”
Attorneys for Arbery's parents did not immediately return phone and email messages seeking comment Tuesday.
Defense attorneys for Travis McMichael and Bryan had not filed sentencing requests with the court as of Tuesday afternoon.
In arguing for leniency for Greg McMichael, Balbo noted his client served three decades in law enforcement and “never received any complaints in his personnel file for racism, harassment, or police brutality.” He also said his client struggles with a litany of health problems — he suffered a stroke several years ago, has heart disease and takes medication for depression and anxiety.
The legal filing included a letter from Greg McMichael's wife, Leigh, offering Arbery's family “my deepest sympathies.”
In the letter she implores the judge: "Please have Mercy on Greg. His intention in this tragedy was not to hurt anyone.”