Attorneys make their cases as murder trial in Arbery case begins

BRUNSWICK — Allegations of racist vigilantism were lodged last year when Ahmaud Arbery was killed and the three white men later charged in his death remained free for more than two months. Accusations of racial discrimination boiled over again Wednesday after attorneys representing the three men struck 11 of the 12 qualified Black jurors from the final panel.

Since the trial began in earnest, with powerful opening statements, the issue of race hasn’t come up — at least not yet.

During her opening, lead prosecutor Linda Dunikoski described Arbery as an avid runner who suddenly found himself chased down and under attack before being gunned down on a Sunday afternoon in a neighborhood almost 2 miles from his home. Defense attorneys for the father and son standing trial argued the men were simply protecting the neighborhood — and themselves — following a string of break-ins that rattled their idyllic, middle-class community.

“The neighborhood was on edge, so much so that behaviors began to change,” attorney Bob Rubin, who represents Travis McMichael, told the jury. “Some children weren’t allowed outside after dark, people were on heightened alert and surveillance cameras went up across Satilla Shores as homeowners tried to catch the thieves who were stealing their property.”

Rubin argued McMichael fired his shotgun in self-defense while protecting himself against an advancing Arbery, who had been spotted on at least four occasions entering a nearby home that was under construction.

Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski, however, asserted that Travis, his father Greg McMichael, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan had no evidence that Arbery had committed any crime when they chased him down in their pickup trucks for the last five minutes of his life.

They assumed the worst of Arbery’s intentions, Dunikoski said. “They made decisions in their driveway, based on assumptions, that took a young man’s life,” she said.

In a case saturated with accusations of racism and a coverup, many in this coastal Georgia county of 85,000 were outraged last week after learning the racial composition of the 12 trial jurors. Black residents comprise more than a quarter of Glynn County’s population and more than half of Brunswick’s, but just one Black man was seated on the jury. All the others are white, as are the three alternates.

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It’s extremely discouraging,” said Daryl Jones, co-leader of the Washington D.C.-based Transformative Justice Coalition. “Just looking at the history of it all, you can go back to the all-white jury of Emmett Till. We’re one juror better than that.”

Jones, an attorney whose organization has led demonstrations outside the courthouse over the past three weeks, said he has no doubt the defense intentionally removed the majority of Black jurors from the pool of qualified candidates.

“There’s no question what they were doing. It was purposeful,” he said. “If in this case a Batson challenge cannot be successful, then when can it be successful?”

The Batson challenge stems from a 1986 ruling by the Supreme Court making it unconstitutional to strike people from a jury solely because of their race, ethnicity or gender. Attorneys can, however, argue race-neutral reasons for eliminating prospective jurors.

For example, Jason Sheffield, Travis McMichael’s attorney, noted that Juror 199, a Black woman, said, “They hunted him down and killed him like an animal,” and “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,” the juror said. “I believe it was wrong. There should be another solution instead of, ‘Bam!’”

Dunikoksi, the lead prosecutor, challenged eight of the defense’s 11 strikes of Black jurors. She argued there were many white jurors who had expressed similar opinions about the case and the guilt of the defendants, noting the defense attorneys didn’t question them nearly as extensively during the selection process.

“I ask the court to look at how much time was spent with each and every one of the African-American jurors,” she told Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley. “Once again, this isn’t one page of notes, it’s four pages of notes.”

Walmsley acknowledged there appeared to be intentional discrimination in the selection process based on the fact the defense struck 11 of the 12 Black jurors. But he ultimately sided with the defense after it listed its reasons for dismissing the jurors.

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Steve Bright, a law professor at Yale and Georgetown law schools, knows the Batson challenge well, having successfully argued two such cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. Bright said the defense attorneys gave valid reasons aside from race for eliminating the prospective Black jurors.

“I don’t see any way that the judge could have sustained any of the challenges here,” Bright said.

Thea Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery’s aunt, said she is disappointed with the racial makeup of the final jury, but not shocked. She had hoped to see at least one Black woman on the jury —someone who “looks like me,” she said.

Nonetheless, she’s optimistic those selected will consider the evidence and return guilty verdicts.

“There are people in that jury pool that have children, grandchildren,” she said. “I think that once they sit down and go through the evidence that’s given, they’ll reflect on their personal lives and what it looks like to be sitting in our seat.”