Prospective jurors for Arbery murder trial reveal strong opinions

BRUNSWICK — Prospective jurors summoned for the high-profile trial of the three defendants charged in the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery have not been bashful about expressing their opinions regarding what happened on Feb. 23, 2020.

Some have strongly condemned the actions taken by the men now on trial. Others said they fear being seated and rendering a verdict that might blow back on the community — and on them.

“I thought they railroaded him,” said a woman designated as Juror No. 164, who said she knows Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery. “It was almost like a lynching to me. They just wanted to hang him.”

Another woman, Juror No. 4, said she came to the courthouse with a negative impression of the defendants.

“I’m not excited about this whole thing,” she said. “Any verdict, guilty or innocent, is going to be unpopular with some people. Maybe I’d even feel unsafe.”

There were also those who said they could listen to the evidence with an open mind.

Juror No. 158 said that while he had seen the cellphone video of the fatal shooting and watched GBI agents testify about the case on TV, “there’s a whole lot I don’t know.”

And when asked if he could render a fair and impartial verdict, Juror No. 158 answered, “I honestly believe I could.”

To anyone following the trial, the first week of jury selection has been a hard slog. Many prospective jurors have such strong feelings about the case, they say they cannot put them aside. And many who don’t want to serve latch onto any excuse they can find to make their escape. So far, about half of those questioned have been struck for cause — meaning they were excused under the belief they could not be fair and impartial.

Travis McMichael, who fired the fatal shotgun blasts; his father Greg McMichael, a former district attorney’s office investigator; and William “Roddie” Bryan, who recorded the cellphone video of Arbery’s killing, stand charged with murder, false imprisonment, aggravated assault and other offenses.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, after seeing Arbery run past his home in the Satilla Shores neighborhood, Greg McMichael called for his son inside their home. Both men armed up, jumped into a pickup truck and gave chase, believing Arbery, a 25-year-old, unarmed Black man, had been breaking into homes in the neighborhood.

Bryan, a neighbor, soon joined in the chase in his pickup. When Arbery was hemmed in, he charged at Travis McMichael, who then fired the fatal shots.

The three defendants, who are white, contend they were making a valid citizen’s arrest, although prosecutors say it was completely unjustified. Prosecutors note Arbery was never seen stealing anything in Satilla Shores and had nothing on him when he was killed.

The McMichaels and Bryan are strongly contesting the charges. The shooting and the cellphone video sparked national outrage and condemnations of racist vigilantism.

Juror No. 175 was one of the very few jurors questioned during the first week who said she believed Travis McMichael acted in self-defense when he fired the shotgun three times. On Wednesday, she explained that she formed her opinion by watching news coverage of the case and seeing the video.

“I believe it was not guilty. I believe it was self-defense,” she told prosecutors, adding that her opinion was “pretty much” fixed. But the woman also said her lease is up and she plans to move out of state this weekend. She was among 12 jurors who were dismissed that day.

Before opening arguments and testimony begin, the court has to qualify 64 prospective jurors. That will be enough to allow defense attorneys and prosecutors to exercise their allotted strikes to get 12 jurors and four alternates.

Fearing that the enormous pretrial publicity would make jury selection a challenge, the clerk of court’s office sent out jury summonses to 1,000 Glynn County residents. Six hundred were to show up for duty last Monday and another 400 are to show up this Monday, if needed.

As of Thursday, the court had qualified 23 jurors, so the end is in sight. There was no court session Friday.

With Glynn County having a population of about 85,000, it’s not surprising that a number of jurors said they know others who were also summoned. This included two brothers, as well as a mother and her son.

Because the defense is asking Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley to prohibit photos of Travis McMichael’s vanity license plate displaying the old Georgia flag with the Confederate battle emblem, the judge is allowing lawyers to ask jurors about it.

Juror No. 4 did not mince words.

“If somebody’s flying a Confederate flag, I don’t think it means they believe in state’s rights,” she said. “I think it means they have a racist view.”

But that wasn’t everyone’s belief. On Wednesday, when a panel of 19 potential jurors was collectively asked if anyone thought the Confederate flag was a racist symbol, no one raised a hand.

Comments Made by Various Potential Jurors During Jury Selection:

“I think if it was a white guy running through the neighborhood I don’t think he would have been targeted as a suspect.”

— A woman who said she believed if Arbery had been white, his fatal shooting wouldn’t have happened.

“He shot a man in his neighborhood who didn’t appear to have done anything wrong. What would I call that? I guess I would call it murder. … I think Mr. Arbery was probably in terror.”

— A retiree giving her take on what happened.

“I just don’t want people’s lives in my hands. I don’t want to have to relocate because of something that goes wrong.”

— A man worried about serving as a juror and rendering a verdict in the case.

“The only time I’ve heard of citizen’s arrest is in ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’”

— A juror referring to an episode of the 1960s’ TV sitcom in which Deputy Barney Fife tickets Gomer Pyle for making a U-turn, and then Pyle places Fife under citizen’s arrest for doing the same thing.

“His videotaping the scene was disgusting and vicious. At the same time I’m thankful that he did, because we are able to see what happened.”

— A woman saying what she felt about Bryan recording cellphone video of the chase and the fatal shooting.

“I don’t know what happened. The only people who know what happened were there.”

— One prospective juror, a woman.

“I know him quite well.”

— Prospective juror, a woman, in reference to another prospective juror who also received a summons in the case: her son.

“Looked like he was out for a jog, looked like he was minding his own business, looks like he got interrupted from what I’ve seen. Does the video tell the whole story? Yes.”

— Prospective juror, a man, who wrote, “Guilty, they killed him,” in his jury questionnaire.

“It was a horrible event. I’ve seen the video. I’m very familiar with it. I can’t be an impartial juror. No way.”

— A veteran, who also said he believes people of color are not treated fairly in the criminal justice system.

“When people’s lives are at stake and somebody got killed it’s really hard. … I’m leaning more towards guilty, but I’m still undetermined.”

— A woman who became overwhelmed with emotion while questioned.

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