Jury selection got underway Monday for what could be a lengthy effort to find jurors in the trial of three white men charged with fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery as he was running in their Georgia neighborhood.
The slaying of the 25-year-old Black man sparked a national outcry fueled by graphic video of the shooting leaked online more than two months after Arbery was killed. Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan are charged with murder and other crimes in Arbery’s death on Feb. 23, 2020, just outside the port city of Brunswick.
With hundreds called, jury selection could last two weeks or more. Arbery’s father said he was praying for an impartial panel and a fair trial, saying Black crime victims too often have been denied justice.
“This is 2021, and it’s time for a change,” Marcus Arbery Sr. told The Associated Press. “We need to be treated equally and get fair justice as human beings, because we’ve been treated wrong so long.”
The first panel of 20 jurors was sworn in and questioned Monday afternoon.
When Judge Timothy Walmsley asked the group if their minds were neutral regarding both sides of the case, only one raised a hand. Asked if they were already leaning toward either side, about half raised their hands to indicate yes.
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski questioned the group next. “Please raise your card if you would like to serve on this jury,” was her final question.
At first, nobody did. Finally, one young man raised his hand.
Jason Sheffield, one of Travis McMichael’s attorneys, asked the group whether they had any negative feelings about the three defendants. More than half raised their hands.
The judge dismissed three of the group, including a law enforcement officer, for cause before questioning the rest individually.
An Air Force veteran and gun owner who was the first to be questioned said he had a negative impression of Greg McMichael, but not the other defendants.
“I got the impression he was stalking,” the man said, saying he based that on news coverage and from seeing the video of the shooting “fewer than five times.”
“From what I observed, he appeared to be the lead dog,” the panel member said of Greg McMichael, a retired investigator for the local district attorney’s office. Still, he said he had not made up his mind about Greg McMichael’s innocence or guilt.
The second panelist said he had seen so much about the slaying in the news and on social media that “I’m sick of it.”
He said he shared the video of Arbery’s shooting on social media and discussed the case with his brothers — one of whom was also among the 1,000 people mailed a jury summons in the case.
Another potential juror, a woman who is a retired accountant, said she had negative feelings about the defendants but tried to avoid an opinion on their guilt or innocence. She also expressed misgivings about sitting on the jury.
“How would I feel if I was asked to render a verdict that was unpopular?” she said. “Any verdict, guilty or innocent, is going to be unpopular with some people.”
“Maybe I’d even feel unsafe,” she added.
The court hasn’t identified the race of any of the prospective jurors.
Arbery’s killing stoked outrage during a period of national protests over racial injustice. More than two months passed before the McMichaels and Bryan were charged and jailed — only after the video of the shooting leaked online and state investigators took over the case from local police.
Prosecutors say Arbery was merely jogging when the McMichaels armed themselves with guns and chased him in a pickup truck. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded the now-infamous cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.
Defense attorneys insist the three defendants committed no crimes. Greg McMichael told police they pursued Arbery suspecting he was a burglar after security cameras previously recorded him entering a nearby home under construction. He said Travis McMichael fired his gun in self-defense after Arbery punched him and tried to grab his weapon.
Investigators have testified that they found no evidence of crimes by Arbery, who was unarmed, in the Satilla Shores subdivision.
As a precaution against the coronavirus, 600 jury pool members were ordered to report Monday to a gymnasium to provide room for social distancing. They were summoned to the courthouse in groups of 20, Glynn County Superior Court Clerk Ronald Adams said.
Along with their jury summons, pool members were mailed a three-page questionnaire asking what they already knew about the case and what news outlets or social media platforms were their main sources of information.
The form also asked whether prospective jurors posted any online comments about Arbery’s killing and if they visited the scene of the shooting or did other research into the case on their own.
Ultimately the judge needs to seat a jury of 12, plus four alternates to fill in for any jurors who get sick or are dismissed before the trial ends.
Once a jury is seated, the trial itself could take more than two weeks, Adams said.