BRUNSWICK, Ga. – Jury selection began Monday in the trial of three men accused in a high-profile murder that sparked nationwide protests and sent Georgia lawmakers scrambling to rewrite the state’s statutes. Hundreds of Glynn County residents were ordered to report for what could be a lengthy effort to find impartial jurors in the closely watched case.
Cellphone video of the killing of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery taken by one of the defendants will be central to the trial. Issues of race, cronyism and justice will loom large during the trial of three white men accused of chasing and shooting a Black man running through their neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020.
On trial are Greg and Travis McMichael, a father and son who chased Arbery in a pickup truck with weapons while the Arbery jogged through their neighborhood. Their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, is also accused of murder. He shot video with his cellphone of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery with a shotgun.
Greg McMichael told police his son fired in self-defense after Arbery used his fists to attack.
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.
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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.
Greg McMichael told police they thought Arbery looked like a man suspected of break-ins in the area. The Brunswick News obtained documents through a public-records request showing there had been just one burglary in the neighborhood since January -- a handgun reported stolen from an unlocked truck parked outside Travis McMichael’s house.
No one disputes that McMichael, son of the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office investigator Greg McMichael, shot and killed Arbery, but he was not immediately charged because Travis McMichael claimed he was acting within the scope of a citizen’s arrest.
The three defendants were arrested three months later after the shooting when the cellphone video showing Travis McMichael shooting Arbery at close range was released.
The graphic video shows Arbery running along a residential road when he encountered a white pickup stopped with one man standing outside the driver’s stoor and another standing in the truck bed. Arbery briefly moves out of the camera frame before a shotgun blast is heard. Next, Arbery and the man who was driving the truck were seen in a tussle before Arbery was shot two more times.
After the video was released, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was asked to take over the case. Within two days, Greg and Travis McMichael were arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault. Two weeks after that, Bryan was arrested and charged with felony murder and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment.
According to Glynn County Superior Court Clerk Ronald Adams, it could take two weeks or longer to seat a jury of 12 with four alternates to hear the case. Adams said 1,000 people in Glynn County were mailed jury summons.
The large number of potential jurors reflects the challenges the court faces in finding impartial jurors in a case that has drawn this much attention and public outcry.
On Monday morning, 600 potential jurors were to report to the courthouse annex. Adams said the additional 400 will be on standby to appear the following Monday if there are not enough qualified jurors chosen from the first pool.
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.
In the court Monday morning, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley heard arguments on motions filed by “media interveners,” one requesting a pool reporter be able to sit in the courtroom during jury selection since the media pool camera will not show jurors faces or their reactions to questions, which sometimes maybe by a show of hands. Walmsley denied a challenge to an existing gag order filed by several media organizations because no one appeared at the hearing to argue the case.
Potential jurors were asked to fill out a questionnaire asking whether they have been following the case and other issues. The hearing then turned to the second list of questions for jurors proposed by both the team of prosecutors and defense lawyers -- most from other parts of Georgia.
“I don’t rush anything in a case but I also don’t want to just burn time just for the sake of burning time. We have a lot of jurors that would like to get through the court in order to determine when and if we can have a panel in this case,” Walmsley said as the lawyers debated the second questionnaire. “The longer we spend on each individual question and each individual phase, the more concerned I get about how this is going to go.”
Several questions were challenged and Walmsley ordered several removed from the list.
During the trial, there will be some traffic disruptions around the Glynn County Courthouse. Reynolds Street being closed from G Street to I Street for the duration of the trial and additional road closures could occur if they’re deemed necessary. A public information line is available every day from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.: 912-324-9911.
The impact of the trial in Glynn County is being felt beyond the courthouse. Downtown businesses say they’re prepared for large crowds.
Bernie Gendron owns a restaurant that’s just a mile away from the courthouse.
“We’ve got all of our people working whatever hours we can build into the workday. And last week and this week, we went down to Jacksonville and got stocked up in Jacksonville for the influx of people,” Gendron said.
Other shops in the area say they’ve noticed an increased police presence.
News4Jax has a team of reporters covering the entire trial and will stream the court proceedings on News4Jax.com and News4Jax+. To ensure the privacy of the jury, live coverage of jury selection may be limited.