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3 men face sentencing for federal hate crimes in Ahmaud Arbery's death

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Three white men who killed Ahmaud Arbery are scheduled to be sentenced on federal hate crime charges today. Travis and Greg McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan are already serving life sentences after they were found guilty of murder. A federal jury found that race was a motivating factor when they chased down and shot the 25-year-old Black man as he jogged through their neighborhood in 2020. Benjamin Payne of Georgia Public Broadcasting reports.

BENJAMIN PAYNE, BYLINE: Federal sentencing might seem to some like a moot point since the McMichaels and Bryan are already serving life sentences for murdering Arbery outside the small town of Brunswick, Ga., in February 2020. But today's hearings could decide whether the men will serve their time in a state prison in Georgia or in a federal prison, which is generally regarded as safer.

Ed Tarver is a former federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Georgia, the jurisdiction where the federal hate crime case was tried.

ED TARVER: Generally in matters like this, where you have a conviction in a state jurisdiction and then you have a conviction in a federal jurisdiction, the entity that has the first conviction is the one that will incarcerate those individuals.

PAYNE: However, a plea deal that federal prosecutors offered to the McMichaels before the trial would have seen the men first go to federal prison. That deal was rejected by a judge after hearing emotional testimony from members of the Arbery family who said that Ahmaud's killers shouldn't get to go to their prison of choice.

The scuttled plea deal came as a surprise to Page Pate, a local attorney who is not involved with the case.

PAGE PATE: I've been practicing in federal criminal court for over 25 years. I cannot think of a single time where I've even had discussions about having the person's federal time basically take priority over state time when there's been a prior state conviction. That almost never happens in federal court.

PAYNE: But that did happen to former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who was first convicted in a state court in the death of George Floyd and then pleaded guilty to federal charges. And as part of the deal, he would serve his time in a federal prison.

Arbery's mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, had harsh words for the Department of Justice in offering the initial deal to the McMichaels. Here she is outside the Brunswick Federal Courthouse in February after the guilty verdicts were announced.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WANDA COOPER-JONES: I told the DOJ that, yes, they were prosecutors. But one thing they didn't have - they didn't have a son that was lying in a cold grave.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Come on, now.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: All right.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Come on, Wanda.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Ooh, Lord.

COOPER-JONES: And they still didn't hear my cry. We got a victory today. But it's so many families out there who don't get victories.

PAYNE: The McMichaels have filed motions in court saying they're concerned for their safety in Georgia prisons. Travis McMichael says he's received more than 800 threats and that people are, in his words, waiting for him. In 2016, the federal judge in this case gave a lecture at the University of Georgia where she said, quote, "more than any other area of law, sentencing holds up a mirror to society and shows us who we are."

For NPR News, I'm Benjamin Payne in Brunswick, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Benjamin Payne