Jury selection begins today in Ahmaud Arbery case

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

BRUNSWICK — Hundreds of prospective Glynn County jurors are expected to report on Monday as the trial for three men charged with murder in the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery gets underway here.

Jury summons were sent to 1,000 residents ahead of one of the highest-profile trials in Georgia history, and hundreds of demonstrators have already converged on the community of about 86,000.

LISTEN: Breakdown: The trial begins

An estimated 600 residents are set to report to Selden Park in batches through 3:30 p.m., though it’s unclear how many will actually show up. The county designated the recreation center as a courthouse annex to ensure social distancing ahead of the trial, and another 400 prospective jurors will report next Monday if needed.

Twelve people ultimately chosen from this enormous pool will be tasked with deciding 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 national spotlight.

From the recreation center, prospective jurors will be brought to the courthouse in groups of 20 on Monday and the days and perhaps weeks following. As defense attorneys and prosecutors look to empanel an impartial jury, those summoned will be questioned collectively before being asked individual questions about their stances on race, gun rights and self-defense — as well as their knowledge of the case. Arbery was Black. The defendants are white.

Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old, was shot and killed by Travis McMichael in the Satilla Shores neighborhood outside Brunswick last year. The McMichaels, both armed and riding in a pickup truck, began chasing Arbery as he ran through their neighborhood after leaving a house nearby that was under construction. The McMichaels contend they were relying on Georgia’s then-existing citizen’s arrest law to detain Arbery, who they suspected in a string of neighborhood break-ins.

Bryan, a neighbor, soon joined the chase in his own pickup truck and filmed the cellphone video of the final moments of Arbery’s life. When the two pickups hemmed in Arbery, he charged at Travis McMichael and was shot three times at close range as he tried to take his shotgun.

Prospective jurors are also expected to be asked about a page on the Glynn County Superior Court Clerk’s website dedicated to the jury selection process. The website gives staggered times of when prospective jurors, who are assigned numbers, are to report for duty. (Numbers 1-67, for example, were to appear at 8:15 a.m.) The website also includes links to the docket, documents and court records in each of the defendant’s cases.

These records include court filings by the defense and prosecution over evidence that Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley has ruled inadmissible, including records showing Arbery’s previous brushes with the law and his mental health diagnosis. The documents include nearly all the information in the case that has been made public so far. Prospective jurors are expected to be asked whether they accessed any of those documents before reporting to the recreation center, and whether that information influenced their view of the case.

The overarching question on the first day of the trial is how long it may take to seat a qualified, impartial jury and whether that’s even possible given the widespread publicity of the case.

City and county officials are bracing for waves of protests amid the trial. In July, a coalition of local law enforcement agencies, firefighters and other government officials assembled Glynn Unified Command to prepare for potential unrest during the court proceedings.

With tensions high for the upcoming trial and the whole world watching, leaders are hopeful any demonstrations will remain peaceful. But teams are standing by should things devolve, they said — especially after a verdict is reached.

Glynn County police Capt. Jeremiah Bergquist, one of eight incident commanders heading the county’s response, said the public safety group meets daily and is “prepared to support peaceful assemblies” as the town is thrust into the spotlight.

“We would like to maintain as small a footprint as possible,” he said. “This is not a situation where we’re just going to put a police officer on every corner because we wouldn’t do that typically. We’re trying to create a small footprint to let people express themselves, and hopefully that works out.”

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