Fate of Arbery trial in question as COVID-19 ravages Glynn County

From left to right, Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan. All three men have pleaded not guilty to charges they murdered Ahmaud Arbery. Their case is scheduled to go to trial on Oct. 18 at the Glynn County courthouse. (AJC file photo)

From left to right, Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan. All three men have pleaded not guilty to charges they murdered Ahmaud Arbery. Their case is scheduled to go to trial on Oct. 18 at the Glynn County courthouse. (AJC file photo)

A mobile morgue outside Brunswick’s hospital houses the overflow of the dead. National Guard troops take up the slack for an overwhelmed medical staff. The school system closed for three days and then went virtual.

COVID-19 is surging out of control in Glynn County on the coast of Georgia. And yet at the Glynn County Courthouse, Oct. 18 remains the date to commence the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial, which is certain to attract national attention and ignite demonstrations.

“The trial is going to be a challenge,” said Audrey Gibbons, a member of the Glynn County Board of Education. “It’s been awful here. We’ve had so many deceased citizens, the funeral homes don’t know where to put them all.”

Glynn County’s rate of confirmed and suspected cases hit 2,900 per 100,000 residents at the end of August. A rate of 100 cases per 100,000 over a two-week period is considered to be “high community spread,” the state Department of Public Health says.

“I’m worried for our community because so many people are dying or are very ill,” Brunswick attorney Kevin Gough said. “It’s tough times here.”

Gough represents William “Roddie” Bryan, one of three men charged in the Feb. 23, 2020, killing of Arbery, who was 25 and unarmed. Also charged are Travis McMichael and his father, Greg McMichael.

Ahmaud Arbery. (Family photo)

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Greg McMichael and his son, who were both armed, chased Arbery in Travis McMichael’s pickup truck through the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside of Brunswick. Bryan, a neighbor, joined in the chase in his pickup and took the infamous cellphone video that showed Arbery being cornered and then charging at Travis McMichael, who killed Arbery with three shotgun blasts.

The McMichaels and Bryan contend they were making a valid citizen’s arrest because they believed Arbery had burglarized a home under construction and was fleeing. Prosecutors say no citizen’s arrest was justified, and they note Arbery had no stolen items in his possession when he was killed. At the trial, they will ask a jury to convict the three defendants of murder, false imprisonment and other charges.

Screenshot of Ahmaud Arbery shooting video.

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Gough said he hopes the surge of COVID-19 cases in Glynn County — brought on by low vaccination rates and the highly contagious delta variant — will decline before the trial begins.

“I don’t have a crystal ball, but I’m optimistic,” Gough said. “It just depends on how fast the numbers go down. In the next week or two, when the carnage this has caused becomes clear to everyone, I hope the number of people getting vaccinated goes up significantly.”

Decatur lawyer Bob Rubin, one of Travis McMichael’s lawyers, said he is concerned the trial could be delayed.

Bob Rubin is one of the attorneys representing Travis McMichael, the man charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.  Photo taken Wednesday, Sept 9, 2020.  (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

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Credit: Jenni Girtman

“But at this point we are proceeding as if it will start on Oct. 18,” he said. “Our clients have been incarcerated without bond for about a year and a half. We are anxious to get this case tried and get them out of jail.”

The key players in the trial are believed to be fully vaccinated. But only about 43% of Glynn County residents are in that category.

The spike in COVID-19 cases has been staggering, making Glynn County one of the worst counties in the nation in terms of transmission of the virus. On June 17, for example, the county reported an average of fewer than 1 confirmed or suspected infection a day. Last week, the county’s average daily cases hit 201. As of Thursday, there had been 223 confirmed deaths from COVID-19 in Glynn County.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley, who is presiding over the case, has told lawyers he will reassess the situation in a few weeks.

Last month, Stephen Scarlett, chief judge of the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, suspended two weeks of trials in Glynn County because of high transmission rates. “We have to be mindful that we compel people to the courthouse,” he said, adding that he did not anticipate holding trials until mid-September at the earliest.

If the Arbery trial goes as scheduled, the medical community is ready to provide masks to people protesting in the streets, just as it did during demonstrations last year, said Michael Scherneck, president and CEO of Southeast Georgia Health System.

“Hopefully we can help keep people from getting infected and prevent a large gathering from becoming a super-spreader event,” he said.

Southeast Georgia Health System’s two hospitals — a 300-bed campus in Brunswick and a 40-bed hospital in neighboring Camden County — are at capacity. From the beginning of July through early August, 14 people died in those two hospitals. From Aug. 11 though the end of last month, 89 people died, Scherneck said.

When asked when he thought the COVID-19 surge in his area might begin to ebb, Scherneck estimated four to eight weeks, saying he was relying in part on the gradual decline of cases occurring in northern Florida. “But nature sure has a way of throwing you curveballs sometimes,” he added.

Dr. Lawton Davis, director of the state health department’s eight-county Coastal District, noted that when the delta variant materialized in India, the numbers of new cases dramatically increased before declining three to four months later.

Because much of India’s population is more concentrated and its vaccination rates were lower, “in theory, we should be better,” Davis said. “There are some who think we’ll peak here in mid-September, but it’s hard to say. The rise of new cases seems less dramatic than it has been recently and there may be some flattening out. I hope we’re about to reach that point.”

At the same time, Davis expressed concern about large gatherings over the Labor Day weekend and the outbreaks likely to follow. “If lots of people are partying it up and drinking together, that could be a problem,” he said.

East Beach in Brunswick was packed with people on July 14, 2020. Glynn County — home to Georgia's popular beach getaways of Jekyll, Sea and St. Simons islands — has become a major hotspot for the coronavirus disease, according to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of state health data. (RYON HORNE / RHORNE@AJC.COM

Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

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Credit: rhorne@ajc.com

Prospective jurors for the Arbery trial will be screened for symptoms and required to wear masks, Davis noted.

The plan is to summon several hundred prospective jurors in waves to the Selden Park recreational center. The gym, about 2 miles from the courthouse, has been specially designated a courthouse annex to allow for social distancing. Groups of 20 or so potential jurors will later be taken to the courthouse for group and individual questioning.

If the numbers hold, there is a good chance at least one person in the courtroom during jury selection will have the coronavirus, public health researcher Amber Schmidtke said. Using an event assessment tool developed by Georgia Tech, she said there is a 77% to 92% risk that someone has COVID-19 when there is a gathering of at least 25 people in Glynn County.

Staff writer J. Scott Trubey contributed to this article.


Feb. 23, 2020 — Ahmaud Arbery is shot and killed by Travis McMichael in the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside of Brunswick.

June 24, 2020 — Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan are indicted on charges of malice murder, felony murder, false imprisonment and other crimes.

July 17, 2020 — Bryan is denied bond.

Nov. 13, 2020 — The McMichaels are denied bond.

May 7, 2021 — Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley sets an Oct. 18 trial date for the McMichaels and Bryan.

Sept. 2, 2021 — Former Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson is indicted for shielding the McMichaels and Bryan from prosecution.