BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Opening statements will come this week in the murder trial of three white men accused in the killing Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old Black man shot to death last year while jogging down a residential street.
It has taken more than two weeks to seat a jury for the racially-charged case, in part because so many prospective jurors say they have a firm opinion about what happened on February 23, 2020 in the Satilla Shores subdivision just outside Brunswick.
Father and son, Gregory and Travis McMichael, and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan are accused of murder, false imprisonment, and other charges. Cell phone video taken by Bryan shows the men chasing Arbery with pickup trucks, cornering him, and Travis McMichael shooting him to death with a shotgun in a struggle.
The video will be key to the prosecution’s case, and nearly all the people summoned for jury duty say they’ve seen the recording, some repeatedly. Many admit to having formed an opinion based on the graphic images.
“He’s guilty, I saw the video,” said a white man in his 20s.
“Some things you just can’t unsee,” said another man.
A Black man likened what happened to Arbery to deer hunting – “when you chase and corner someone, he felt like he had no choice but to escape by any means.”
“He wasn’t given a fair chance,” said a Black woman. “It was almost like a lynching to me.” She was struck from the jury pool.
Others said they could set aside their beliefs to consider the evidence at trial. Judge Timothy Walmsley explained that Georgia law does not prohibit people with opinions from serving on juries as long as they can hear the evidence with an open mind.
A thousand Glynn County residents were initially summoned as prospective jurors, an acknowledgement of how difficult it would be to find people not affected in some way by the highly-publicized killing that has been cast as a test case for racial justice in America.
Several of the unnamed jurors talked about the pressure that creates. One man said he feared being a juror with someone’s fate in his hands. Some people expressed concern for their own safety.
One white woman talked about how the state of things has “everyone on edge.” She said she would fear being followed home, or harassed if she was chosen to be a juror.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys have questioned potential jurors on a range of topics – including their views on race, whether they own guns, and if they think Black and white people are treated differently by police.
“The whole case is about racism,” said a middle-aged Black woman. “They hunted him down and killed him like an animal.”
Numerous prospective jurors said they thought Arbery was targeted because of his race – that if a white man were jogging through the neighborhood, he would not have met the same fate.
Even as race has permeated the jury selection process, prosecutors do not have to show racial motivation to prove the state charges. That will feature more prominently in a separate federal hate crimes trial next year.
Defense attorneys will be arguing that the McMichaels suspected Arbery of neighborhood break-ins after seeing him on a new home construction site, and that the killing was a legal attempt at a citizen’s arrest gone tragically awry. Local authorities say there is no evidence linking Arbery to crimes in the Satilla Shores subdivision.
The defense line of questioning for potential jurors has centered on whether they could give meaningful consideration to an argument of self-defense, and Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law at the time. (It was repealed by the state legislature in the wake of Arbery’s killing.)
One white man in his 30s said he had a problem with the three defendants facing murder charges because he doesn’t believe any of them intended to kill Arbery. He called it an “unplanned escalation” that should have been avoided.
“Someone was killed,” he said. “But I feel both parties contributed to that outcome. I don’t see me using the term ‘murder’ to say what happened.”
After eleven days of questioning, a total of 65 have been qualified to serve in the jury pool. On Wednesday prosecutors and defense attorneys will use court-allotted preemptory strikes to pick a jury of 12 with four alternates. Opening statements will start after the jury is seated.
Once testimony begins, the trial is expected to last several weeks. Prosecutors told jurors they should be prepared to serve until November 19th.