Ahmaud Arbery case: Opening statements start Monday

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

BRUNSWICK — Opening statements will begin Monday in the federal hate crimes trial for the three men convicted of Ahmaud Arbery’s murder.

Sixty-four potential jurors were qualified during a week of jury selection in the high-profile case. Prosecutors and defense attorneys are expected to exercise their allotted strikes on Monday morning, whittling the pool down to 12 trial jurors and four alternates before delivering their opening statements.

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Travis McMichael, his father Greg and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted of murder in a state case last fall and sentenced in January to life in prison. The McMichaels were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole; Bryan, who filmed the cellphone video of Arbery collapsing in the street from two shotgun blasts, was given possibility of parole.

The three men were also indicted on federal charges accusing them of interfering with Arbery’s rights and targeting him because he was Black, among other charges. They have pleaded not guilty.

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Of the more than 160 potential jurors questioned this week, just about all of them were familiar with the case. And many expressed negative opinions about the three men standing trial. Those who said they could remain impartial and consider the evidence with an open mind were allowed to remain in the jury pool.

The prospective jurors were grilled about their exposure to the case, their views on race and the opinions they have formed since the 25-year-old Arbery was chased and killed nearly two years ago in a neighborhood just outside Brunswick.

“A number of potential jurors know about the guilty verdicts and a number of them don’t have favorable views of my client,” Travis McMichael’s attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, said in court Friday.

Jury selection in the state trial was a grueling process that lasted nearly three weeks. To speed things up in the federal case, jury summonses were sent to 1,000 people across 43 counties comprising the entire Southern District of Georgia. Some people traveled to Brunswick from as far away as Augusta or beyond.

Attorneys for both sides read through the mailed questionnaires and agreed to strike certain people who said they had fixed opinions before jury selection began this week. U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood thanked the lawyers for agreeing to streamline the process.

“It was central to being able to get through a great number of these summons in a rational amount of time,” Wood said Friday afternoon.

The trial itself will take between seven and 12 days, the judge has said.

The government’s evidence is expected to include incendiary text messages and social media posts by the defendants as federal prosecutors argue the trio chased down Arbery and killed him because he was Black. Legal experts say proving racism was a motive in the killing could be challenging, however.

One man questioned Friday said it would be much easier to prove that someone robbed a bank.

“You know the bank was robbed,” said Juror No. 393, who lives in the Augusta area and was later dismissed. “That’s a little bit different than something like a hate crime charge where you have to know what’s in someone’s heart.”

The prosecution’s first witnesses won’t be called to testify until Tuesday, the judge said.