Race permeates day one of jury selection in trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s accused killers

By: and - October 19, 2021 1:00 am

The national spotlight returned to Brunswick Monday for the start of jury selection in the trial of three white men charged with the 2020 shooting death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery. Wes Wolfe/Georgia Recorder (file photo)

The difficult and time-consuming process of selecting impartial jurors who will decide the fate of the three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery began Monday in a case that is bringing national attention to racial justice in the South.

Arbery was a 25-year-old Black man who was jogging through a suburban Brunswick neighborhood on a Sunday in February 2020 when he was pursued and cornered by Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan. Arbery, who was unarmed, was shot three times with a shotgun at close range. 

Summons were sent to 1,000 people who live in Glynn County, a coastal community home to about 85,000 residents. Potential jurors were asked Monday about their thoughts on the fairness of the criminal justice system and whether they had already formed an opinion about the defendants’ guilt or innocence.

Two weeks have been set aside for jury selection, with potential jurors congregating at a community center complex, before being led in small groups into a Glynn County Courthouse assembly room to undergo questioning.

The defense went into the process wanting to ask questions that might reveal the potential jurors’ views on race, such as whether they viewed the Confederate battle flag and an older version of the state flag that incorporated the Confederate imagery as a racist symbol.

Chad Posick, Georgia Southern University’s criminology and criminal justice professor, said prosecutors are attempting to use the Confederate imagery on Travis McMichael’s pickup truck tag to show the chase that turned into a deadly shooting was the result of racial animus and not just three white men trying to arrest someone they suspected of breaking into homes. 

Meanwhile, the defense attorneys are asking the judge to grant their request to present evidence of the low amount of THC found in Arbery’s system as influencing his actions on the day he was killed.

“At this stage of the game, the judge has the most power so they’re really the ones that are standing there saying, ‘Here’s what is going to be presented to the jury and here’s what’s not going to be presented,’” Posick said. “And that can be huge, that can determine the case.”

State lawmakers added the Confederate battle symbol to the state flag in 1956 in the wake of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling ordering desegregation in schools. That version flew as the official state flag until 2001, when its retirement was part of a compromise that protected Confederate monuments from removal.

An auto tag of the old state flag can be seen on the front of Travis McMichael’s pickup truck in some of the body cam footage taken the day of the shooting. The defense is still trying to keep the tag image out of the trial.

Bryan, a co-defendant, told investigators Travis McMichael blurted a racial slur after Arbery was shot and dying in the street. The defendants have said their actions were not racially motivated and claim they suspected Arbery was a burglar and that the defendants acted in self defense. 

“For the record, we don’t believe this is a case about race,” said Kevin Gough, who is Bryan’s attorney.

The questions to the potential jurors – including some nixed by Chatham County Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley – offered clues about what’s to come in the nationally watched trial.

They also reflect the stakes in the case, which elicited near universal condemnation last year with former President Donald Trump calling Arbery’s killing “a horrible thing” and Gov. Brian Kemp saying it was an “injustice.” Arbery’s name was at the center of many social justice demonstrations at the Georgia Capitol and across the country that followed George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.

His death also prompted state lawmakers to pass a hate crimes law and then overhaul the state’s citizen’s arrest law

Waycross Judicial Circuit District Attorney George E. Barnhill and former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney Jackie Johnson cited the citizen’s arrest law as justification for not arresting the McMichaels and Bryan. Johnson was recently indicted for her handling of the Arbery case. The Cobb County District Attorney’s Office is prosecuting the case. 

The defense wanted to give people in the small coastal county a chance to say they feared an acquittal could threaten their safety, reputation or business should the trial end with not-guilty verdicts.

Glynn County Sheriff’s Office handles security inside the courthouse, but a unified command composed of law enforcement and first responder agencies from around the area and state has been hashing out security since June in the event of unrest after the trial. 

“All of those could be legitimate concerns based on what has happened in the United States in the wake of jury trials going way back, not just recent year and half,” said Frank Hogue, the attorney for Greg McMichael. “We’ve seen it many times where communities are thrown into great chaos after a courtroom has engaged in a trial and a verdict has been reached.

“And it’s not an unreasonable thing that some jurors who live here in Glynn County would come into this case with those concerns on their mind, and it could influence – I’m not saying it will – but it’s possible that it could influence the verdict they choose,” Hogue said.

The judge said a question like that would likely rule out everyone. 

“This is a case that has garnered significant attention in this community as well as around the country,” Walmsley said.

“This is not an easy thing for anybody, and so I have no doubt that if you ask that question, you will get a response from almost every individual that it affects them in some way,” he said. “It affects everybody in this room. It affects the defendants. It affects the families.” 

Potential jurors’ perceptions of bias among police officers were revealed in an exchange when Travis McMichael’s attorney Jason Sheffield asked them if they believe Black and white people in the U.S. are treated equally by police officers.

One juror said she has a close family member who is a police officer who treats people fairly, but said there were other officers that acted differently based on race. Another potential jurist agreed while someone else called their responses “a huge generalization.”

Sheffield responded that the question should elicit strong reactions.

“It’s meant for you to gather up all your feelings and thoughts about it,” the Atlanta attorney said.

The jury proceedings are not all playing out for everyone to hear with the audio from the livestream turned off when jurors were asked Monday if they were victims of crime.

It’s common in many trials that jurors’ answers to topics of a sensitive nature are closed off from the public, Posick said.

But the tidbits that can be analyzed from what’s streamed for the public and in media reports from this jury trial can provide some powerful insight, he said.

“Most people want to watch ‘Law & Order,’ but this is a real life case and real issues and sometimes this is the only way that people really know how things go inside the criminal justice system,” Posick said. “I think it’s going to be important for everybody to pay attention as we move forward.”

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Stanley Dunlap
Stanley Dunlap

Stanley Dunlap has covered government and politics for news outlets in Georgia and Tennessee for the past decade. At The (Macon) Telegraph he told readers about Macon-Bibb County’s challenges implementing its recent consolidation, with a focus on ways the state Legislature determines the fate of local communities. He used open records requests to break a story of a $400 million pension sweetheart deal a county manager steered to a friendly consultant. The Georgia Associated Press Managing Editors named Stanley a finalist for best deadline reporting for his story on the death of Gregg Allman and best beat reporting for explanatory articles on the 2018 Macon-Bibb County budget deliberations. The Tennessee Press Association honored him for his reporting on the disappearance of Holly Bobo, which became a sensational murder case that generated national headlines.

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Jill Nolin
Jill Nolin

Jill Nolin has spent nearly 15 years reporting on state and local government in four states, focusing on policy and political stories and tracking public spending. She has spent the last five years chasing stories in the halls of Georgia’s Gold Dome, earning recognition for her work showing the impact of rising opioid addiction on the state’s rural communities. She is a graduate of Troy University.

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