BRUNSWICK, Ga. – The federal judge presiding over the hate crimes trial of three white men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery said she will seat a jury Monday after a week spent asking potential jurors what they already know about the Black man’s death as well as their views on racism in America.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said Friday she’s ready to start the trial with 64 people deemed qualified to serve as impartial jurors. That pool will be narrowed to a main jury of 12 plus four alternates Monday, when the judge also expects attorneys to make opening statements.
Prosecutors said they would like to have an hour for their opening statements, but they don’t think it’ll be that long. Most of the defense attorneys said the same thing — 30 minutes to an hour.
The judge said no witnesses will be called Monday.
It will be the second time the port city of Brunswick, on the Georgia coast south of Savannah, has held a trial in Arbery’s killing since November, when the same three defendants were convicted of murder in a Georgia state court.
Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael armed themselves and chased 25-year-old Arbery in a pickup truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.
No arrests were made in the case until the video leaked online two months later.
A judge last month sentenced the McMichaels and Bryan to life in prison for their murder convictions. But they still face a federal trial on hate crime charges, which allege that they violated Arbery’s civil rights and targeted him because he was Black.
All three men have pleaded not guilty in the federal case. The judge said she expects the hate crimes trial to last between seven and 12 days.
The judge and attorneys worked this week to interview more than 160 potential jurors pulled from 43 counties across southern and eastern Georgia. Nearly two-thirds of them were dismissed for having strong opinions about the case after watching portions of the state murder trial or news reports about it.
Some of the 64 jury pool members returning to the courthouse last Monday said they knew little about the case. They include a man, identified in court only as juror No. 421, who on Friday told the judge: “The only thing I really know is that it’s a high-profile case and there might be a video related to it.”
Others were able to persuade the judge they could set aside what they know and hear the federal trial based solely on the evidence presented in court. One of them, a woman identified as juror No. 422, said she had negative feelings about the McMichaels and Bryan because they didn’t seem to show remorse in the state trial, but insisted she could still be fair.
There was a moment Friday morning when one potential juror became extremely emotional, saying she believes the defendants are guilty, and she could be heard crying loudly in the hallway after she was led back outside. She was quickly excused from the panel.
Arbery’s family members could be seen walking into the federal courthouse in Brunswick on Friday morning. They were present when that one potential juror became emotional, and moments later, Arbery’s aunt exited the courtroom. She returned a short time later.
Another woman was excused who the judge said appeared to be angry in her responses to some of the questions.
Though those two women were excused, the Arbery family had something to say about their reactions in court.
“I wouldn’t care if it was a white kid, if that would’ve happened to a white kid, I would’ve had some emotions. If you have a heart and care about children, you’ll have some emotions. When you see a kid get killed like that, on hate and racism,” said Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery.
Barbara Arnwine, president and CEO of the Transformative Justice Coalition, said: “He heard people saying that they were triggered by all of this, it’s just painful. Hate crimes aren’t pretty. That’s why when people talk about how it’s a hoax or it’s only for money, it’s a real form of racial denial in our society.”
The search for an impartial jury in federal court came just a week after attorneys announced the McMichaels planned to plead guilty in the federal case in a deal with prosecutors that quickly fell apart. The judge noted only one or two potential jurors said they were aware of that.
In the state murder trial, defense attorneys argued the defendants were justified in chasing Arbery because they suspected he had committed crimes in their neighborhood. Travis McMichael testified that he opened fire in self-defense after Arbery attacked him with fists and grabbed for his shotgun.