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Effort to pick jury in Ahmaud Arbery slaying trial begins 2nd week

3 Glynn County men charged with murder in 2020 killing

An outcry over the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Arbery echoed across the U.S. after graphic cellphone video of the shooting leaked online two months later. The defendants said it was a citizen's arrest while Arbery's family calls it was a modern-day lynching.

BRUNSWICK, Ga. – The second week of jury selection in the trial of the three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery began Monday at the Glynn County Courthouse.

An outcry over the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Arbery echoed across the U.S. after graphic cellphone video of the shooting leaked online two months later. The defendants said it was a citizen’s arrest while Arbery’s family calls it a modern-day lynching.

After the first week of screening prospective jurors, 23 were qualified to advance to a pool of 64 needed before the trial can proceed to pick a final jury. After nearly 12 hours on Monday, another 1 qualified, bringing the total to 32 -- halfway to the court’s goal.

“We can’t do what we do in Superior Court without members of the community coming down and participating,” Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley said when welcoming another group of prospective jurors on Monday morning.

The judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys questioned 71 pool members since jury selection began last Monday. After dismissing those with personal hardships or unshakable biases, just under two qualified for the small pool from with the 12 jurors and four alternates will be picked.

Jurors have been told they could be needed through Thanksgiving week.

In court, the three defendants looked mostly straight ahead and without emotion, all are wearing suits. Arbery’s family is present also, sitting in the gallery.

MORE ONLINE: The Ahmaud Arbery Case | No ‘blank slate’ jurors in county shaken by slaying

A jury questionnaire posted on the county’s website asks jurors if they have been following this case, how much have they heard from the media, what facts do they believe to be true, and have they seen the video of the Feb. 23 shooting. It also asks that they share all of their social media accounts.

Identified in court only by numbers, both people were summoned to jury duty in the trial over Arbery’s slaying. And after attorneys questioned them extensively about the case, the judge deemed both to be fair-minded enough to remain in the pool from which a final jury will be picked.

The process is going slowly because potential jurors either know too much about the case, know the defendants -- father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan -- or they have taken a stand in the case that could impact their objectivity.

No. 218 joined a bike ride supporting Arbery’s family after the young Black man was chased down and shot dead. No. 236 was a longtime co-worker of one of the white men charged in the killing.

Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski, said she was concerned about the defense asking potential jurors “what does justice for Ahmaud mean to you?” She considers it a question that could get a juror struck from the poll unfairly.

Attorneys on both sides pay attention to every detail in the courtroom.

“When Juror 380 left (the courtroom), Ahmaud Arbery’s father Marcus, nodded at him (potential juror),” said Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough. “These kinds of subtle gestures are mildly concerning.”

No one else saw the gesture. Judge Timothy Walmsley told Gough his objection was noted and on the record.

News4Jax caught up with Marcus Arbery and supporters about the accusation.

“I feel normal just concentrating on justice for Ahmaud,” he said, adding he doesn’t pay attention to the attention he gets in the courtroom.

How we got here

With jury selection underway in the Georgia community of 85,000 where the killing took place, it seems increasingly likely that some of the jurors who are ultimately chosen will have preconceived opinions and personal ties to the case.

While questioning potential jurors, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski often told them the ideal juror would be a “blank slate.” In the trial over Arbery’s killing, she noted, that is probably impossible.

“We can’t get that because it’s been all over the place,” Dunikoski remarked in court Thursday.

The result has been a number of potential jurors kept in the pool despite coming to the courthouse already knowing a lot about what happened and the people involved. That's because they said they can decide the case fairly, based only on the trial evidence.

Georgia law allows someone to serve on a jury even if they come to court with an opinion about the case, as long as that person expresses a willingness to keep an open mind, said Donnie Dixon, a Savannah defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.

“The operative question is: Is your opinion so fixed that you couldn’t get a fair trial?” said Dixon, who’s not involved in the case. “The reality is, who knows? But if they say those magic words, the judge may not disqualify them.”

The McMichaela armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. Bryan, joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.

Greg McMichael, who had recently retired after a long career as an investigator for the area district attorney, told police Arbery had previously been recorded by security cameras inside a neighboring house under construction and they suspected he had been stealing. He said Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense after Arbery attacked him.

Until now, the case has been driven by outsiders. The McMichaels and Bryan were not charged until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police. Greg McMichael's ties to the district attorney resulted in the appointment of outside prosecutors from metro Atlanta. Likewise, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley from Savannah was assigned to preside.

If a jury gets seated in Glynn County, where 1,000 jury duty notices were mailed, the case will ultimately be decided by people for whom the slaying hit much closer to home.

Jury pool member No. 218, a retail worker who identified herself in court as a Black woman, wrote on her juror questionnaire that "a young man was shot due to his color and the three men that committed the act almost got away.”

She said in court Thursday that she had taken part in a bike ride to raise money for Arbery's family after the shooting. And while telling attorneys she could be a fair juror, she also said that based on what she knows now: “I feel like they are guilty.”

Not everyone called to jury duty has been preoccupied by Arbery's killing. A self-employed woman said she refused to listen when her husband tried to discuss the case and said she goes “out of my way not to read news or politics.”

She remains in the jury pool.

Others have been disqualified for seeming too engaged. The judge dismissed a woman who said she believes she saw Arbery running near her home not long before he was killed. She described feeling emotionally connected to him, and followed pretrial court proceedings closely.

No. 236 was kept in the jury pool even though she's known Greg McMichael for 30 years. She still works a clerical job for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit district attorney. Though she and Greg McMichael were not close friends, she said the two had "always just been around each other.”

The woman said she also got a close look at Greg McMichael's personnel file because she was tasked with redacting private information from it after news organizations requested copies.

She told the judge and attorneys she did not have a strong opinion about the case. What little opinion she offered was not sympathetic.

“I don’t understand why they took it into their own hands," No. 236 said. "That’s the only thing that disturbs me about that day. I would have called 911 and let the police handle it.”

If enough people summoned to the court house keep expressing strong opinions, defense attorneys could ask the judge to halt jury selection and move the case to a different Georgia county.

“It’s the easiest time to get a change of venue,” said Don Samuel, an Atlanta defense attorney who is not involved in the case. “If half the people who are randomly picked are so biased they can’t even sit as jurors, you’re talking about a community that’s saturated by pretrial publicity.”

About the Authors:

16-year veteran journalist and Emmy Award winning anchor

Ashley Harding joined the Channel 4 news team in March 2013 and reports every weekday for The Morning Show.