Jury selection begins in Arbery case as world looks on

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AJC's Bill Rankin and Asia Simone Burn preview the trial of three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery. Video by Ryon Horne

Brunswick - Asked if anyone had negative feelings about the three men facing murder charges in Ahmaud Arbery’s shooting death, about a dozen of the first 20 prospective jurors brought into the courtroom raised their hands.

The display showed how difficult it could be to seat a jury in a case that has received worldwide attention.

“I think Mr. Arbery was probably in terror,” said one prospective juror who shared candid feelings about the case. “I’m trying to be honest here.”

The 12 eventually seated will decide whether Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan are guilty of malice murder, false imprisonment and other charges in the February 2020 shooting that thrust Glynn County into the spotlight.

“He shot a man who had been running through his neighborhood who didn’t appear to have done anything wrong,” the prospective juror, a retired accountant and auditor, said when asked about Travis McMichael. “What would I call that? I guess I would call it murder.”

ExploreComplete coverage of the Ahmaud Arbery case

Another potential juror directed harsh words toward Bryan, the McMichaels’ neighbor, who recorded the widely shared cellphone footage of the deadly encounter.

“His videotaping the scene was disgusting and vicious,” said that prospective juror, a teacher. “However, at the same time I’m thankful that he did, because we are able to see what happened.”

The killing of the unarmed Black man in this Coastal Georgia community led to widespread protests and allegations of systemic racism. The three white men ultimately charged in Arbery’s case were allowed to leave the scene after being questioned by police. Arbery was Black.

Before jury selection began, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley decided what questions could be asked. He rejected some, such as whether those who oppose the Black Lives Matter movement are racist and whether anyone believed Arbery’s shooting highlighted racism in their community.

Walmsley decided there would be four alternate jurors seated. He also dismissed eight of the original 20 prospective jurors, including a caregiver of a 4-year-old, a person with several felony convictions and a person originally from Mexico who said she didn’t understand English well enough to follow. Jury selection continues Tuesday.

Legal experts believe race will play a crucial role in trial. It remains to be seen whether Walmsley will allow prosecutors to introduce into evidence photos of a vanity license plate depicting the old Georgia state flag on the front of Travis McMichael’s pickup truck at the time of the killing. Georgia’s prior flag, flown from 1956 through 2001, prominently featured the Confederate battle emblem.

Walmsley did permit the lawyers to ask the jury pool whether they thought the Confederate flag and the old state flag were racist symbols. The judge is requiring prospective jurors to wear masks and is keeping them 6 feet apart. Because of limited space, Walmsley allowed only two reporters into the courtroom, instructing them to serve as pool reporters.

When the judge asked panelists if their minds were neutral between both sides, only one raised a hand. Asked if they were leaning toward either side, about half raised hands.

Some said they had closely followed the case in the news, and several indicated they had made up their minds.

One prospective juror said she came to the courthouse with a negative impression of the defendants based on what she’d read in newspapers and seen on television.

“A man died, and so yeah, I have a pretty negative feeling about that,” she said. “It’s hard for me to believe that there is a law that says that a citizen can shoot down another one because he thinks something happened.”

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She also said she harbored a negative view of the Confederate flag.

“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.”

Another prospective juror said he had shared footage of the deadly shooting and discussed the case extensively. He said he had seen so much about Arbery’s slaying in the news and on social media that he was “sick of it.”

“It’s everywhere,” he said. “It’s around my job. Everywhere I look it’s there.”

He acknowledged discussing the case with his brothers — one of whom also received a jury summons in the case.

“Yes, I’ve said that they were guilty,” the panelist said of the three defendants.

He expressed qualms about serving as a juror.

“I just don’t want people’s lives in my hands,” he said, adding he feared he could suffer personally if he had to render a verdict in the case. “I don’t want to have to relocate because of something that goes wrong.”

One prospective juror said he had accessed the online dockets for the defendants. Those links came courtesy of the Glynn County Superior Court Clerk’s Office, which linked them beside instructions telling those who received summons where and when to report.

Those records included court filings by the defense and prosecution over evidence that Walmsley has ruled inadmissible, including records showing Arbery’s previous brushes with the law and his mental health diagnosis. The documents included nearly all the information in the case that has been made public so far.

Outside the courthouse, demonstrators sang and carried signs and wore T-shirts with Arbery’s face on them.

“It’s the first step in the journey to justice,” said attorney Ben Crump, who is representing Arbery’s family. “It’s been a long journey. You know, you have to think how many obstacles we had to overcome to get to this moment.”

Crump added that the road to what he calls justice could have been longer had it not been for public outcry over Arbery’s killing, including the public response to the cellphone footage capturing the 25-year-old’s final moments.

“I mean, if it were not for that video, then the big lie could have stood forever,” he said.

— Associated Press reporter Russ Bynum contributed to this article.