BRUNSWICK – Sparks flew during the final phase of jury selection in the Ahmaud Arbery case Wednesday when prosecutors accused defense attorneys of eliminating a disproportionate number of jurors because of their race.
In the end, just one Black man made it onto the jury of 12. All the others are white. The panel of 16, which includes 12 trial jurors and four alternates, consists of four men and 12 women.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said the attorneys representing Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan used their allotted strikes to eliminate 11 of 12 prospective Black jurors from the qualified panel, leaving a mostly white jury to decide the high-profile case.
Opening statements are expected to begin Friday morning in the shooting death that has galvanized many in this community of 85,000 and drawn demonstrators from across the U.S. to the coastal Georgia town. Arbery was Black. The McMichaels and Bryan are white.
“In this case we had 48 jurors to select from,” Dunikoski told the judge, 12 of whom were Black and 36 of whom were white. “The actual jury that was selected has one African American male on it.”
Of the qualified panel, the defense was given 24 strikes (eight per defendant) and the state was given 12. In their challenge, prosecutors said the attorneys representing the men charged in Arbery’s killing acted with racial bias when they eliminated most of the Black jurors from the panel.
Meanwhile, the prosecution used all 12 of its allotted strikes on white jurors.
Defense attorneys fired back against the allegations of racial bias, arguing the prospective jurors were eliminated not because of the color of their skin, but because of their attitudes toward the three men charged with murder and their responses to questions during more than two weeks of jury selection.
Jason Sheffield, a lawyer for Travis McMichael, noted that Juror 199, a Black woman, had said, “They hunted him down and killed him like an animal. … The whole case was about racism.”
Laura Hogue, who represents Greg McMichael, cited answers given by Juror 253, another Black woman. “No one needs to have their life taken,” she said. “I believe it was wrong. … There should be another solution instead of ‘Bam!’”
Judge Timothy Walmsley ultimately sided with the defense, though he noted, “There appears to be potential discrimination in the panel.”
“One of the challenges that I think counsel recognizes in this case is the racial overtones in this case,” he said, before denying the prosecution’s motion to have the stricken Black jurors reseated in the pool of qualified people.
At least three of them had supported the “I run with Maud” movement and others came into court with the impression that the defendants were already guilty, Hogue noted.
The strikes the defense team made were “a lesser of two evils,” she argued, saying defense attorneys were “stuck between a rock and a hard place” in a case where so many people had expressed strong opinions.
“We have a very clear selection procedure within the defense team,” she said, “and the issue of race is not one of the factors.”
“It’s up to us to use our peremptory strikes to say to ourselves, ‘Is that the kind of juror, given those impressions and feelings … Would you want that juror judging you in this case?’” Hogue asked. “And the answer is a resounding no.”
She said the 13 white people also struck by the defense were eliminated because they, too, expressed bias against the defendants, and that all of their strikes were “race-neutral.”
Walmsley found the defense was “genuine” in its decision to strike the Black jurors in the racially charged trial.
“This case has been difficult because race has been injected into this process,” he said, noting that in Georgia, all the defense must do to counter such a challenge is explain their reasoning for striking a prospective juror, other than race.
“The court is not going to place upon the defendants a finding that they are being disingenuous to the court … when it comes to their reasons for striking these jurors,” Walmsley said.
Civil rights attorney Lee Merritt, who represents Arbery’s family, said the defense counsel had “put their thumb on the scale of justice” when striking the jury.
“The qualified panel reflected the diversity of the region,” he said.
But in striking 11 of the 12 potential Black jurors, Merritt said, the defense is looking to “obtain a jury that reflects the racial makeup they believe will be more favorable to their clients — a disproportionately white jury.”