Defense wants ‘no press’ for part of Arbery jury selection

SAVANNAH — Defense attorneys for men charged in the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery are asking a Georgia judge to keep reporters out of the courtroom when lawyers question potential jurors to determine if they have biases in the widely publicized case.

Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael, a white father and son, are charged with murder in the February 2020 killing of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot after the McMichaels spotted him running in their neighborhood outside the coastal port city of Brunswick. A neighbor who joined the pursuit, William “Roddie” Bryan, was also charged with murder.

Jury selection in the three men's trial is scheduled to begin Oct. 18. Defense attorneys for the McMichaels filed a legal motion Wednesday that proposes three main steps. Jury pool members would first answer a written questionnaire. Then they would be brought one at a time into the courtroom for questioning by the judge and lawyers. Finally, potential jurors would face additional questions in groups of 12.

The legal filing by the McMichaels' attorneys requests that “no press will be permitted to be present” when potential jurors are questioned individually about what they've heard about the case and whether issues with race or other matters might make it hard for them to be fair and impartial.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley has not weighed in on the request. Neither have prosecutors. Under Georgia law, court proceedings including jury selection are presumed to be open to the press and the public, though judges can restrict access in rare circumstances.

Arbery's killing sparked a national outcry last year amid protests over racial injustice. The McMichaels armed themselves with guns and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck when they spotted him running in their neighborhood Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.

All three defendants have said they committed no crimes. Defense attorneys say the McMichaels had a valid reason to pursue Arbery, thinking he was a burglar, and that Travis McMichael shot him in self-defense as Arbery grappled for his shotgun.

Whether an impartial jury can be seated in coastal Glynn County, where the killing occurred 70 miles south of Savannah, remains a major question.

In their court motion, defense attorneys say it is critical that potential jurors feel as comfortable as possible answering questions about race and other sensitive topics to ensure the McMichaels are tried by an impartial jury.

“We must create the best environment for jurors to share their true thoughts, beliefs, biases, and prejudices about very sensitive subjects,” Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, said in an email Thursday. “Having the media blast their answers all over the nation will undoubtedly have a chilling effect on the truthfulness of their answers to our questions.”

The motion to exclude reporters from a key part of jury selection clashes with decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court as well as the Georgia Supreme Court that heavily favor public access to court proceedings, said Gerry Weber, a constitutional and civil rights attorney who is a former legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia.

A judge has limited authority to clear a courtroom, such as to allow a potential juror to answer specific questions that might deal with private or confidential information, Weber said, but that “requires an individual assessment each time a courtroom is closed.”

“There can’t be a blanket rule that individual questions are going to be secreted from the public,” Weber said. “The way that it’s framed as a blanket rule, I don’t think a judge would approve that.”

The judge has scheduled a hearing with attorneys next Thursday to discuss pretrial motions and jury selection.