Potential jurors express strong opinions about Ahmaud Arbery’s killing

Credit: Associated Press

Credit: Associated Press

52 people qualified through 3 days of jury selection in hate crimes trial

As expected, most of the prospective jurors summoned for the hate crimes trial over Ahmaud Arbery’s killing are familiar with the case — and some of them harbor strong opinions.

Jury selection continued Wednesday in the federal trial for three men convicted of chasing and killing the 25-year-old as he ran through the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside Brunswick two years ago.

Most prospective jurors questioned in open court were familiar with at least some facts of the Feb. 23, 2020, shooting and a few said they had closely followed the case or watched portions of last year’s high-profile state trial on television.

Some said they believed the three defendants were guilty as charged. Others said they thought elements of racism are frequently “overblown” by the news media.

So far, just one person raised his hand and said he knew nothing about the case.

“I don’t watch the news,” said Juror No. 134, a white man questioned Tuesday who described himself in his juror questionnaire as devoutly religious. “What I do understand being a man of faith is that justice is important.”

On his questionnaire, he wrote that “all crimes should be punished, whether motivated by hate or not.” He was among 52 people qualified through the first three days of jury selection.

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U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said those selected will be called back Monday for additional questions. Prosecutors and defense attorneys will then exercise their allotted strikes, narrowing the pool down to a panel of 12 jurors and four alternates. The trial could begin Tuesday and is expected to last seven to 12 days, the judge said.

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.

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

One potential juror, No. 132, said he believes the media often makes race “a bigger issue than it is.”

“Hate is a subjective term,” the U.S. Army veteran wrote on his juror questionnaire. “If you commit a crime against another person, there’s a certain level of hate.”

The prospective juror said he tried to avoid media coverage of the case after receiving his summons in the mail, but he was the only person questioned Tuesday who knew the McMichaels were prepared to enter guilty pleas last week.

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“The judge decided not to allow it, I guess,” said No. 132 when asked what he knew about the plea agreement. He was among those asked to return next week.

The McMichaels had reached a deal with federal prosecutors that could have avoided a second trial for the father and son. In exchange, they hoped to serve the first 30 years of their life sentences in federal custody. But Wood rejected the binding plea agreement last week, telling the men they could plead guilty but she would decide their sentence.

Juror No. 152 said he watched two days of the state trial on television last year, including Travis McMichael’s testimony. He also said he’s seen the cellphone video of Arbery’s killing at least four times.

“It was a bad situation all the way around,” he said.

Asked what he thought of Travis McMichael taking the stand, the man said, “I was just glad I was not in his place at the time.”

The potential juror said he believed issues of race are often exaggerated by the media. Asked by prosecutors to list specific examples, he cited George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis and the Kyle Rittenhouse case in Wisconsin.

He was excused over the objections of the defense.

ExploreComplete coverage of the Ahmaud Arbery case

“There are an awful lot of jurors who didn’t watch two days of trial, let alone a defendant’s testimony,” Judge Wood told attorneys before dismissing the juror. Prosecutor Christopher Perras said the government does not plan to show video of Travis McMichael’s testimony in the state case during the upcoming trial.

One woman said she couldn’t understand why a second trial was being held.

“They were convicted of murder last year,” said Juror No. 153, “If they were already convicted, I don’t understand why there’s another trial. ... It doesn’t make sense to me.”

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Of the 16 people questioned Tuesday afternoon, 10 raised their hands when asked if they thought the defendants were guilty. Three more questioned Wednesday said the same thing. All of them were struck for cause.

“I think it was wrong. I think they should have called 911,” Juror No. 194 told the judge. He said he watched the footage of Arbery falling dead in the road several times.

“They keep showing that video,” he said. “If you turn on any news you see it, you know? Sad day.”

Another man was excused after saying he doesn’t “believe in hate crimes” and wouldn’t be able to convict the defendants.

“I believe they’re trying to promote racism,” said Juror No. 188.

One of the five people qualified Wednesday indicated he thought Arbery was racially profiled by the McMichaels while out for a jog.

“From what I read in the media, I don’t really know what he did wrong,” said Juror No. 259, who is white.

Defense attorneys moved to strike him from the jury pool after asking his thoughts on “stand your ground” laws.

“I’m OK with someone defending their own property,” he said. “But they don’t have the right to chase down and murder someone.”

Wood said she “found him very credible” and asked him to return next week.

Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery, said he expects the evidence presented by prosecutors at trial will be “overwhelming.”

“It doesn’t matter who they pick. The evidence is there,” he said outside the courthouse. “We will get another conviction on Round 2.”

Jury selection resumes at 9 a.m. Thursday.