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Can Judges Reject Plea Deals?

By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

Most criminal cases are resolved by plea bargains. In a plea bargain, a defendant agrees to plead guilty in exchange for concessions from prosecutors when it comes to sentencing.

Courts also often encourage plea deals because they reduce backlogs, and judges typically abide by the deals.

But not always.

Though the practice is rare, judges can reject plea deals. And that is what happened on Jan. 31 in the federal prosecution related to the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia. U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood rejected a plea deal that would have averted a federal hate-crimes trial for two men.

Travis McMichael and his father Gregory McMichael could now go to trial in federal court as early as Feb. 7. Those two men and a third defendant, William Bryan, were already convicted of murder in a state court in November.

The purpose of the federal trial is to determine whether the murder is a hate crime that was motivated by racial bias.

Facts of the Arbery Case

The murder occurred on Feb. 23, 2020, when Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, went jogging near his home in Brunswick, Georgia. Gregory McMichael saw Arbery run by and thought he looked like a man suspected in several nearby break-ins. McMichael called his son, they armed themselves with a handgun and shotgun, and they chased after Arbery in a pickup. Bryan also joined in the chase and recorded the shooting on his cellphone.

The pursuers cornered Arbery, a fight began, and Travis McMichael shot Arbery three times with the shotgun.

Rejecting a 30-Year Sentence

After the three men were convicted of murder in state court and sentenced to life in prison, prosecutors and defense lawyers reached a plea deal as the federal trial drew nearer. The deal would have sent at least the McMichaels to federal prison for 30 years in exchange for an admission that the crime was racially motivated. However, Arbery's family angrily objected to the deal, largely because federal prisons are generally considered less brutal environments than state prisons.

After hearing the family's plea, Judge Wood agreed and said the deal would force her to agree to its exact sentencing terms, but she needed more information before deciding if the proposed 30-year sentence was just.

As it stands, jury selection for the federal trial is scheduled to begin on Feb. 7, but prosecutors and defense lawyers could propose a new plea bargain.

Judges' Discretion

While the rejection of plea deals is uncommon, judges do have broad latitude to do it if they think the terms don't serve the interests of justice.

Last May in Maryland, for instance, U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang rejected a deal that would have put a man described as the world's largest purveyor of child pornography in jail for 15 to 21 years. The judge said he was inclined to give the defendant a longer sentence.

Last July in Oklahoma, U.S. District Judge Gregory Frizzell rejected a plea agreement to reduce a first-degree murder charge to second-degree.

While plea bargaining is essentially a private process, the American Bar Association notes that victims' rights groups are having a stronger voice in the process.

The Arbery family did not have input into the process, but they did have a strong voice after prosecutors and defense lawyers reached their proposed agreement. Prosecutors believed the deal was sufficiently tough because it eliminated any chance of parole. The family argued that giving the defendants the more desirable prison environment is wrong and that they need to be tried in federal court on hate-crime charges.

Pros and Cons of Plea Deals

For criminal defendants, accepting a plea bargain means they can avoid more serious charges, serve a lighter sentence, and avoid the hassle and uncertainty of a trial.

The downside for criminal defendants is that agreeing to a plea bargain means admitting guilt. Also, plea bargains typically require surrendering any rights to appeal.

For those reasons, it is important to consult with a criminal defense attorney before entering into any plea agreement. A skilled criminal defense attorney can best determine whether the deal is a good one or whether going to trial is the best option.

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