Judge won’t change racial makeup of jury in Arbery slaying

3 men charged with chasing, shooting unarmed 25-year-old jogging through their neighborhood

BRUNSWICK, Fla. – The judge in the trial of three white men accused of chasing and killing Ahmaud Arbery declined to override decisions in jury selection Wednesday that left just one Black juror on the final panel of 12, though he agreed with prosecutors that “there appears to be intentional discrimination.”

Prosecutors had asked Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley to reinstate eight Black potential jurors, arguing that defense lawyers struck them from the final jury because of their race. The U.S. Supreme Court has held it’s unconstitutional for attorneys during jury selection to strike potential jurors solely based on race or ethnicity.

Walmsley said he was limited in his ability to change the jury’s racial makeup because defense attorneys were able to give nonracial reasons for their decisions to strike the potential Black jurors from the panel.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told reporters outside the courthouse she found it “devastating” that only one Black juror will be seated. Still, she said of the final jury: “I’m very confident that they’ll make the right decision after seeing all the evidence.”

Prosecutors spoke out against racial disparities in the selected jury pool of 65 for the trial of the three men accused in the death of Arbery.

“Issue number one is the underrepresentation of what I call “Bubba” or “Joe Sixpack” in the jury pool,” said Kevin Gough, defense attorney for William “Roddie” Bryan.

The prosecution quickly argued racial discrimination on the jurors picked on Wednesday. They started reviewing each juror who they felt was discriminated against.

Here are the numbers the state gave right off the top:

  • 11 Black jurors were struck
  • The defense struck 24 of 48 jurors
  • There were 12 Black jurors in the pool
  • The actual jury has one Black man and 11 white people

Looking at the first 48 potential jurors that could be chosen, there were 19 men, 29 women, 36 are white, 12 are black, 9 of the white men are over 40 years old.

The defense said they would have to question each juror one by one and none of the strikes considered race.

That’s basically what they started doing.

They talked about potential jurors’ support of Arbery on their Facebook accounts.

Defense attorneys in court and representatives for Arbery’s family talked about the importance of having their clients represented in the jury.

”Most of the jury selection we had to do was the epitome of the lesser of two evils,” said Laura Hogue, defense attorney for Gregory McMichael. “The majority of the Black jurors brought in here were struck for cause immediately because of their strong opinions. It is up to us to say to ourselves, ‘Is this an appropriate juror? Would you want that juror judging you?’ The answer is a resounding no.”

“Gough is yelling about Bubbas and six-packs. We’re just like, ‘We want to make sure this is a racially diverse jury.’ Remember we’re in Glynn County and African-Americans are a sizeable part of this population. Here in Brunswick, they are 56% of the population so we expect they have a racially diverse jury,” said Barbra Arnwine, president of The Transformative Justice Coalition.

The judge had both sides going back and forth on why they struck or why they found racial discrimination for each potential juror.

It took 11 days for a judge and panel of lawyers to agree on a pool of 65 Glynn County residents qualified to hear the murder charges against three men accused in the February 2020 shooting death of Arbery. Court observers believe they will seat a jury of 12 plus four alternates by Wednesday.

All of the qualified jurors were to be brought into the courtroom in large groups Wednesday afternoon as the attorneys decide who to keep and who to strike silently.

After a discussion at the beginning of the day, Juror 219 was dismissed from the pool because she has video tributes to Arbery on her TikTok account. She left the courtroom shaking her head.

The judge then admonished the defense for being overly aggressive in its questioning.

“These people who came in for jury selection went through a long and arduous process,” Judge Timothy Walmsley said. “Parties need to be very careful because it can start alienating people. It can really start pushing people’s buttons.”

“That’s going to take time to bring those people through the court and strike. And then, hopefully, we’ll be left with some considerable amount of time to work through motions,” said attorney Jason Sheffield, an attorney representing Travis McMichael -- the man shown on video shooting Arbery.

“So we may not be getting to opening statements until Thursday, maybe Thursday afternoon, maybe Friday,” Sheffield told WTOC-TV.

Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and Bryan, who recorded the video, are all charged with murder in Arbery’s death.

Among the defense motions still pending. are several dealing with evidence and one that asks that the trial be moved out of Glynn County.

Sheffield was also asked if a motion to change the location of the trial is being considered by the defense. He says it’s not off the table, and a decision on whether or not to file a motion to change venue would be made very soon.

FULL COVERAGE: The Ahmaud Arbery Case | Live stream of jury selection

More than 200 people were screened before the court filled the qualified pool. Leaving the courthouse Tuesday afternoon, the attorney representing Bryan said he appreciates the time potential jurors have taken to participate in the jury selection process.

“I think all the lawyers are pleased that we’re getting close to having a group of jurors qualified and get this process moving along,” Gough said. “Everybody’s worked real hard at it.”

Gough also says, for the most part, he’s pleased with the honesty of potential jurors during voir dire -- the formal examination of prospective jurors under oath.

Walmsley announced earlier in the week that the court will also meet on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. Prosecutors have told prospective jurors the trial could last through Nov. 17 -- the Friday before Thanksgiving.

About the Authors:

A Florida girl and North Carolina A&T SU grad who thrives in breaking news.

Created WJXT.com in 1995 and managed The Local Station's website through 2021.