BRUNSWICK - Days after an attorney representing one of the men charged in Ahmaud Arbery’s death called on Black pastors to be banned from the courtroom, the Rev. Jesse Jackson walked in and took a seat.
Attorney Kevin Gough then asked Judge Timothy Walmsley to remove the prominent civil rights leader from the gallery and have him watch the proceedings on a livestream in the overflow room next door. Walmsley denied the request and called comments made by Gough last week “reprehensible.”
“Mr. Gough, at this point I’m not exactly sure what you’re doing,” Walmsley said, noting that he wasn’t aware Jackson had entered the courtroom until the attorney brought attention to it. “You need to understand your words in this courtroom have an impact on a lot of what’s going on.”
Gough, who represents William “Roddie” Bryan, drew criticism last week when he objected to the Rev. Al Sharpton sitting in on court proceedings with Arbery’s parents.
“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” Gough said Thursday. He argued having “high-profile members of the African-American community” in the courtroom could pressure or intimidate the jury.
On Monday, he renewed his complaint after Jackson took a seat at the back of the courtroom, his face mask pulled down at his chin.
Walmsley suggested that Gough brought unwanted attention to himself following last week’s remarks.
“I will say that is directly in response, Mr. Gough, to statements you made, which I find reprehensible,” the judge told him. The Colonel Sanders statement you made last week, I would suggest may be something that has influenced what is going on here.”
He was referencing a comment in which Gough brought up the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken while talking about Sharpton being in court.
“If a bunch of folks came in here dressed like Colonel Sanders with white masks sitting in the back, that would be—” Gough said before he quickly cut off by the judge.
On Monday, he objected to Jackson’s presence, saying “there is is no reason why these prominent icons of the civil rights movement need to be here.
“In the context of this trial, we object to his presence in the public gallery inside the courtroom,” Gough said. “How many pastors does the Arbery family have? ... I don’t know who Reverend Jackson is pastoring here.”
Having Black clergy inside the courtroom, Gough argued, is “no different than bringing in police officers or uniformed prison guards in a small town where a Black man has been accused of assaulting a law enforcement officer or corrections officer.”
He said spectators to a murder trial are not like fans at an NBA game.
“With all do respect, your honor, the seats in the public gallery of a courtroom are not like courtside seats at a Lakers game,” he said.
Gough also referred to Georgia’s Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, who has served as senior pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church.
“I guess the next question is this: Which pastor is next?” he asked. “Is Raphael Warnock going to be the next person appearing here this afternoon? We don’t know.”
Several Black clergy members gathered at the Glynn County Courthouse on Monday, and even more are expected later this week after family attorney Ben Crump called for “100 Black pastors” to join him and Sharpton in Brunswick.
Arbery, 25, was shot and killed in February 2020 after being chased through the Satilla Shores neighborhood by three white men in pickup trucks. Bryan faces murder and other charges, along with neighbor Greg McMichael, who initiated the chase, and his son Travis McMichael, who fired the shotgun blasts that killed Arbery.
Gough later made a motion for a mistrial, which was joined by attorneys representing the other two defendants. The attorneys contended several jurors saw the civil rights leader console Arbery’s mother when she cried out over a photo of her son shown in court.
“I will have to note I saw a number of jurors looking back,” said Laura Hogue, Greg McMichael’s attorney. “We’re in a difficult position now with this jury to have seen and heard and felt that.”
Jason Sheffield, who represents Travis McMichael, joined in the motion. He spoke highly of Jackson, calling him “the ultimate figure of fairness and justice and equality.” Sheffield also said his mother had an autographed photo of Jackson hanging in her law office for two decades.
“I did notice jurors — a few noticed the outburst,” he said. “There were several jurors that did look over. Their faces changed.”
Walmsley denied the defense’s motion for a mistrial. He reminded Gough that the trial is being held in a public courtroom. Unless a member of the gallery is disruptive, Walmsley said he has no intention of banning anyone from observing.
“The court is not going to single out any particular individual or group of any individuals as not being allowed in this courtroom as a member of the public,” the judge said.
The backlash to Gough’s remarks last week was swift. By Thursday evening, Sharpton issued a stinging rebuke of the Brunswick attorney, calling his comments insensitive to Arbery’s family, who had invited him to attend the trial.
Civil rights leaders have criticized the racial composition of the jury in the trial, which includes 11 white members and one Black man in this coastal Georgia county where more than a quarter of the population is Black.
Jackson expressed concerns about the mostly white jury during a lunchtime news conference on Monday. He likened the case to other high-profile killings of young Black men, including Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown. He called Arbery’s death the “Emmett Till of our day.”
Jackson also said he expects to be in Brunswick throughout the week to support Arbery’s family, calling it a “moral obligation” to help people whose “backs are against the wall.”
The case drew nationwide attention after Bryan’s cellphone recording of the shooting became public last year. But it wasn’t until the GBI took over the case more than two months after Arbery was killed that any arrests were made.
Prosecutors on Monday called several GBI agents to the stand, including Agent Lawrence Kelly, who walked jurors through a digitally enhanced video of the chase and deadly shooting. Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, lowered her head and shut her eyes while the slow-motion cellphone footage of her son’s death was shown repeatedly.
Witnesses who saw Arbery jogging won’t be called
On Monday, after Gough’s motion to remove Jackson was struck down, the defense won what could be a big victory. Prosecutors have long said that Arbery was out for a jog on the afternoon he was killed, and they had four witnesses ready to testify they had seen him running in his neighborhood and beyond.
But Walmsley told lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski that such testimony could “open the door” for the defense to bring up Arbery’s past scrapes with the law. That includes him being on probation at the time he was killed. Upon hearing Walmsley’s reasoning, Dunikoski promptly canceled testimony about Arbery being a jogger from those four witnesses.
Frank Hogue, who represents Greg McMichael, noted that Arbery was seen walking, not running, into the home under construction at the center of the case.
“It’s logically true that he could be both an avid runner and avid jogger. In fact, we don’t have any reason to dispute that,” he said. “But on some occasions when he engages in the activity we call running or jogging he’s doing it for other motives besides physical (and) mental health.”
Bryan worked on his porch after Arbery’s death, video shows
Prosecutors also played surveillance footage from Bryan’s home that appeared to show him working on his porch less than an hour after watching Arbery bleed out in the street.
Bryan told Glynn County investigators and later the GBI that he joined the chase after seeing the McMichaels following Arbery past his house. At the time, he was out working on his porch.
Before joining in the chase, he called out, “You got him?” according to transcripts of his interviews with police and eventually GBI agents.
After he was allowed to leave the scene of the shooting on Feb. 23, 2020, footage showed he returned to his porch and continued working.