As jury selection got slowly underway Monday in the trial of three white men charged with fatally shooting Ahmaud Arbery as he was running in their Georgia neighborhood, potential jurors said they came in with negative feelings about the case and worried about the personal consequences of serving on the jury.
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.
“Please raise your card if you would like to serve on this jury,” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski instructed as she wrapped up her questions for the group.
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.
After being questioned as a group, the potential jurors were questioned individually. Their answers reflected the intense attention the case has attracted, their existing ideas about the case and their apprehensions about being involved in such a high-profile case.
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 innocence or guilt.
Another 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.
A retired accountant said she had negative feelings about the defendants but tried to avoid an opinion on 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 leaked online and state investigators took over the case.
Prosecutors say Arbery was merely jogging when the McMichaels grabbed 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.
As she was questioned by defense attorneys, one potential juror — a young woman who’s a teacher — had harsh words for Bryan.
“His videotaping the scene was disgusting and vicious,” she said. “However, at the same time I’m thankful that he did, because we are able to see what happened.”
Defense attorneys insist the three men committed no crimes. Greg McMichael told police they believed Arbery was a burglar after security cameras previously recorded him entering a nearby home under construction. He said Travis McMichael fired 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 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.
Ultimately, 12 jurors will be seated plus four alternates to fill in for any jurors who get sick or are dismissed before the trial ends.
The judge dismissed eight total potential jurors before adjourning Monday evening. Four others were individually interviewed but no final decision was made on their status. Jury selection was to resume Tuesday morning.
Once a jury is seated, the trial itself could take more than two weeks, Adams said.