Jury finally qualified for Ahmaud Arbery murder trial

But defense says it might ask for a change of venue

BRUNSWICK — After 11 days of intense questioning, the jury qualification process was completed Tuesday for the trial of three white men charged in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man.

At the same time, a defense attorney said a request may be filed to move the trial out of Glynn County to a county that has not been so saturated with pretrial publicity. If that motion is filed, “it’s going to be soon,” said Jason Sheffield, one of the lawyers representing Travis McMichael, who killed Arbery with three shotgun blasts.

The Feb. 23, 2020, shooting thrust Glynn County into the national spotlight. Prosecutors contend Arbery was out for an afternoon jog when he was chased down, shot and killed in the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside Brunswick.

Travis McMichael; his father Greg McMichael, a retired investigator with the local district attorney’s office; and William “Roddie” Bryan, who took the cellphone video of the fatal shooting, face murder, false imprisonment and other charges in the 25-year-old Arbery’s death.

The defendants are strongly contesting the prosecution’s theory of the case. “This is a case about self-defense,” Sheffield said Tuesday.

Three potential jurors dismissed Tuesday were familiar with the defendants, including one woman who has known Leigh McMichael — Greg’s wife and Travis’ mother — for more than a decade. Another woman knew Bryan for decades and a third grew up in the neighborhood where Arbery was killed.

The qualified pool of 65 potential jurors is expected to be whittled down to 12 jurors and four alternates on Wednesday. If that happens, opening statements could be made on Thursday, although Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley has indicated he wants to consider a number of pretrial motions that are still pending.

One of them could be a request for a change of venue.

“A change of venue is not off the menu, but we certainly don’t want that,” Sheffield said, standing just outside the courthouse.

Meanwhile, Kevin Gough, the defense attorney representing Bryan, dropped another bombshell late Tuesday, saying he’s considering filing a motion to sever so that his client would be tried separately from the McMichaels.

Of the roughly 200 jurors questioned so far, many came into court saying they believe the three defendants are guilty. Many of those prospective jurors were qualified to serve after they said they could be impartial, consider all the evidence, and follow the law despite their pretrial beliefs.

But that is a concern to the defense.

“This case is so unique in that you have people who originally came into court saying, ‘I don’t think I can be fair,’” Sheffield said.

“Some people are so fixed in their opinions they won’t change them,” Sheffield said. “So the math that we’re going to have to do after today is whether or not we really do have a fair composition of jurors who can be unbiased without any strong fixed opinions, and who can give us a fair trial.”

Atlanta criminal defense attorney Don Samuel, who is following the case, said he is not surprised a change of venue motion is being considered. Such a motion can be filed up until the prosecution and defense begin exercising their strikes to get a jury, he said.

This happened during the 2016 murder trial of Justin Ross Harris, charged in Cobb County for killing his young son Cooper by leaving him in a hot car.

After three weeks of jury selection, and when enough jurors were qualified, Judge Mary Staley Clark granted a defense request to try the Harris case in another county. The trial was moved to Brunswick, and Harris was convicted in the same courthouse where the McMichaels and Bryan are on trial.

In prior interviews, Decatur jury consultant Denise de La Rue has expressed surprise at some prospective jurors Walmsley qualified over defense objections. That is because those panelists had openly condemned the actions taken by the McMichaels and Bryan or showed favor to Arbery and his family.

“If the defense is fine with the idea of a change of venue, I think it’s probably a good idea,” de La Rue said. “They’ve gotten to see the jury panel. They know what they’re up against.”

Also, Gough, Bryan’s attorney, is raising concerns that the final jury pool will be missing a certain demographic: white men older than 40 and without four-year college degrees. He has referred to them as “Bubbas or Joe six-packs” — in other words, blue-collar jurors who look like Bryan.

“We want a diverse jury,” Gough said during an interview Tuesday outside the courthouse. “But we’re missing a segment of what would normally be here.”

He said he has been researching the law to see if he can file a motion to try and ensure such a demographic is fairly represented.

Steve Bright, a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center and Yale Law School, said Gough is wasting his time.

“When you’re desperate you look for anything you might find,” Bright said. “But the law only recognizes distinct groups — race and ethnicity and also gender — that cannot be discriminated against in jury selection.”