Ahmaud Arbery case: 30 potential jurors qualified for hate crimes trial

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

BRUNSWICK — Thirty potential jurors were qualified on Monday, the first day of jury selection in the federal hate crimes trial for the three men convicted of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder.

Travis McMichael, who killed Arbery with two shotgun blasts, his father Greg, and William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted on state charges last fall and sentenced in January to life in prison.

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Now, they face federal charges accusing them of violating Arbery’s civil rights and targeting him because he was Black.

The scene outside the federal building was far more subdued than at the start of last year’s state trial, held blocks away at the Glynn County courthouse. A few television cameras were set up along sidewalks near Brunswick’s main business district Monday morning, but unlike with the first trial, there were no demonstrators, no banners and no chants of “Justice for Ahmaud.”

The first group of 25 potential jurors was sworn in shortly before 9:30 a.m. and another 27 people were questioned in the afternoon. Nobody raised a hand when U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood asked if anyone hadn’t heard about the high-profile case.

Of the 52 prospective jurors questioned Monday, 30 advanced to the next round. Wood said she hopes to qualify more than 36 people before prosecutors and defense attorneys exercise their allotted strikes next week, whittling the pool down to a jury of 12 people and four alternates.

The judge expanded the pool of potential jurors in preparation for the hate crimes trial, mailing an estimated 1,000 summonses to residents throughout the Southern District of Georgia’s 43-county jurisdiction.

In the state case, many of the prospective jurors knew the defendants, the victim or their families. On Monday, just one woman from the first panel raised her hand when asked if she knew any of the three men standing trial. She said she recognized Bryan from a local hardware store, where he worked fixing small engines. The woman said Bryan repaired her lawn mowers and farm equipment for about six years before his arrest.

“I feel sorry for him,” the juror told Wood. Asked if knowing one of the defendants might make her less impartial, the juror replied, “possibly.”

Another potential juror raised her hand when asked if anyone believed the defendants were guilty of the federal charges. She and the juror who’d known Bryan were among nine people from the first panel excused before lunch.

Those qualified were instructed not to speak with anyone about the case or follow the coverage in the news.

“This case may be the subject of media attention, but it must not be the subject of your attention,” Wood told them.

Unlike with the state case, Monday’s individual questioning was done privately in a separate room, not in open court. So it’s unclear exactly how many prospective jurors are aware the defendants have been sentenced to life in prison or that the McMichaels were prepared to plead guilty last week.

The father and son had reached a deal with prosecutors to enter guilty pleas to one count of their indictment in exchange for serving the first 30 years of their life sentences in federal custody. Wood rejected the plea agreement after an emotional hearing in which Arbery’s relatives said they hoped to see the defendants serve their time in a state prison, where conditions are tougher.

Wood told the McMichaels they could plead guilty if they wished, but that she would decide their punishment. Greg McMichael, a former police officer and investigator with the local district attorney’s office rescinded his guilty plea Thursday evening. Travis McMichael withdrew his Friday. There’s no indication federal prosecutors offered a plea deal to Bryan.

Wood has said she plans to bring in two panels of about 25 jurors each day during the selection process — one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

On Tuesday, she said, individual questioning regarding a potential juror’s media exposure to the case will be conducted in open court. Discussions about a juror’s views on race will be held in private, however, along with any questions about medical issues that might hinder their ability to sit through trial, the judge said.

“It is expected that once a jury is selected, the trial will last approximately seven to 12 days,” she said Monday. The judge also indicated that COVID mitigation practices could slow the pace.

“Ordinarily, we would have this place packed with 70 to 80 jurors at a time,” she said, noting potential jurors would typically be seated “shoulder-to-shoulder” in the second-floor courtroom.

During the afternoon panel, one potential juror told the court he didn’t think he could be impartial. Another juror was excused because she was familiar with the law partner of Greg McMichael’s attorney and feared that could be a conflict of interest.

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Reporters are not allowed to have phones or laptops in the courtroom during the federal trial and the proceedings are not livestreamed, unlike the state trial.

Arbery, 25, was killed Feb. 23, 2020, after the three defendants chased him through their mostly white neighborhood in pickup trucks for about five minutes. Bryan, who joined in the pursuit after seeing Arbery run past his house, filmed the widely shared cellphone video of Arbery falling dead in the street after being shot by Travis at close range.

The McMichaels contended they were trying to conduct a citizen’s arrest because they suspected Arbery, described by family as an avid runner, of stealing from a vacant home under construction. Surveillance cameras filmed him entering the unsecured house on several occasions but there is no evidence he ever stole anything.

He was unarmed when he was chased down and killed. At last year’s state trial, prosecutors said Arbery had no cellphone with him and couldn’t have called for help.

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Legal experts say federal prosecutors may have a tougher time getting convictions in the hate crimes case because they have to prove the defendants’ actions were motivated by racism.

“No. 1, they have to prove that these defendants are racists,” said attorney Page Pate, who has a law office in downtown Brunswick and is closely following the case. “No. 2, they have to prove that their racism led them to kill Ahmaud Arbery ... The racism has to be the motivating factor for the murder, and that’s harder to prove.”

The government will likely introduce as evidence text messages, social media posts and previous comments made by the defendants pointing toward racial animus. Such evidence could also include Bryan’s statement to the GBI that Travis McMichael used a racial slur while standing over the dying Arbery in the street.

At a June 2020 pretrial hearing in the state’s murder case, GBI agent Richard Dial testified that Bryan said he heard Travis McMichael say “(expletive) n-word” after shooting Arbery.

And the lead FBI agent in the hate crimes case testified last week that the younger McMichael regularly used racial epithets when referring to Black people on social media and in text messages.

Jury selection resumes Tuesday at 9 a.m.