How a plea deal in the Arbery hate crime case unfolded
In federal cases, victims have a “reasonable right to confer” with prosecutors and the right to be informed of any agreement. But prosecutors must weigh a host of other factors, including the strength of their evidence, the interests of justice and ensuring that similar crimes receive similar sentences. A plea agreement can ensure that a defendant suffers certain consequences, even if a victim considers them too lenient, while a trial can result in a full acquittal. And prosecutors don’t represent victims.
“If you’re a federal prosecutor, your client is the United States,” said Michael J. Moore, an Atlanta attorney who served as the U.S. attorney for Central Georgia from 2010 to 2015. “Those lines, when you have a victim of a crime, can get blurry. There’s the human side of you that’s very sensitive to the victim’s situation, and then there’s maybe the more academic and professional side, and the professional obligation, which should guide your conduct.
Sometimes the victims are on the side of mercy. When Dylann Roof killed nine members of a predominantly black church in Charleston, SC, federal prosecutors successfully sought the death penalty despite the church’s opposition to capital punishment.
In the Arbery case, Travis McMichael, 36, his father, Gregory McMichael, 66, and a third man were charged with murder and convicted in state court. Federal prosecutors pursued other charges, including hate crime and attempted kidnapping charges. Georgia did not have a hate crimes law at the time of Mr. Arbery’s death.
Ms. Vance, the former prosecutor, said the deal reached by federal prosecutors in the Arbery case was a good one. Hate crimes are difficult to prove at trial, she said. The deal ensured the McMichaels would serve plenty of time even if their state court convictions were overturned on appeal, and it barred them from appealing the federal case. “It was a belief that would go on forever,” she said.
In court, the Arbery family opposed the deal, at least in part, because it would have allowed the McMichaels to serve time in a federal prison, which is generally considered to offer better and safer conditions than state prisons. That may be especially true in Georgia, where last fall the Justice Department launched an investigation into state prisons, citing a high rate of murders and assaults.