Federal prosecutors and defense lawyers representing three men facing federal hate crimes charges for the killing of Ahmaud Arbery want to greatly expand the pool of potential jurors for a trial set for February.
Instead of picking jurors from a seven-county area, attorneys from both sides are requesting that prospective jurors be culled from the entire Southern District of Georgia, a federal jurisdiction composed of 43 counties. In a jointly filed motion, the lawyers said it is necessary to cast a wider net because of intense pretrial publicity and the recent, nationally televised state court murder trial.
Last month, Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan were convicted in Glynn County of murder charges for the Feb. 23, 2020, killing of the 25-year-old, unarmed Arbery. After a brief chase through the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick, Travis McMichael fatally shot Arbery with two shotgun blasts.
A sentencing date has been scheduled for Jan. 7. All three men face mandatory terms of life in prison.
After state prosecutors obtained the murder indictment last year against the McMichaels and Bryan, a federal grand jury in Brunswick handed up a hate crimes indictment against the three men.
It alleges the McMichaels and Bryan used force to intimidate and interfere with Arbery’s right to use a public street because of his race. It also accuses the three white men of trying to kidnap Arbery, who was Black, while he ran through Satilla Shores. The maximum penalty for the hate crimes charges is life in prison.
In pretrial hearings in the state court case, prosecutors noted the three defendants sent racially inflammatory texts and posted bigoted links on social media. In an interview with the GBI after the killing, Bryan said Travis McMichael said, “(Expletive) n-word,” as he stood over the dying Arbery.
While none of that evidence and testimony were put before the jury in the state case, federal prosecutors are expected to introduce it during the hate crimes trial.
U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood has scheduled that trial for Feb. 7, and, in this case, the McMichaels and Bryan are represented by court-appointed attorneys, not the lawyers who represented them in the state case.
It took almost three weeks to pick a jury in the state case. And publicity from the trial likely means many jurors in the seven-county Brunswick division have formed “immutable opinions” about the case and cannot be fair and impartial, according to the joint motion filed by the defense attorneys and prosecutors from the Justice Department’s civil rights division and U.S. attorney’s office in Savannah.
As arduous as it was to pick a jury in the state case, it could be even more difficult to do so in the hate crimes case, the motion said.
For this reason, a broader jury pool from the Southern District’s 43-county area should make it possible to empanel an impartial jury, the motion said. (The Southern District is somewhat of a misnomer; it stretches along the eastern part of Georgia from north of Augusta to the Florida line and goes no farther west than the central part of the state.)
A similar approach was taken in the highly publicized trial for former state Senate Majority Leader Charles Walker. In 2005, a jury picked from the entire Southern District convicted Walker of federal fraud and tax evasion charges.
In a separate motion, Travis McMichael’s attorney, Amy Lee Copeland, asked that the trial not be held at the federal courthouse in Brunswick but at another courthouse in the Southern District. Those options are U.S. courthouses in Augusta, Dublin, Savannah, Waycross and Statesboro.
About the Author
Credit: Nathan Posner for the AJC