Ahmaud Arbery’s Murder Trial Jury Is Proving Hard to Pick

October 20, 2021 Off By Trone Dowd

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Jury selection in the ongoing murder trial of Ahmaud Arbery’s killers is off to a rough start.

Lawyers rolled into Day Three of trying to find impartial people to sit on the jury that will determine the fates of Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael, and their friend William “Roddie” Bryan, who are all charged with the murder and false imprisonment, among other crimes, of the 25-year-old Black man. But so far, just eight of the 40 potential jurors brought into Glynn County Superior Court for questioning have qualified for the final phase of the process.

On the first day of group questioning, only one person of 20 raised their hand when asked if they were impartial to either side of the case. Half of them raised their hands when asked if they favored one side or the other.

One jury candidate, who said she supports Black Lives Matter and considers the Confederate flag a racist symbol, told attorneys that she doesn’t believe in vigilante justice, according to the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

“I got the impression he was stalking,” another potential juror, a male Air Force veteran, told attorneys of Gregory McMichael, according to the Associated Press.

Another potential juror, a former investigator for the local district attorney’s office, said the elder McMichael appeared to be the “lead dog” the day he and his son Travis follow Arbery in their truck to conduct a “citizen’s arrest,” which was then allowed under Georgia law.

While the progress made so far would be significant in almost any other case, it’s a drop in the bucket for a high profile trial with over 1,000 prospects being questioned for jury. Both the defense and prosecutors want to whittle down those 1,000 people to a group of at least 64 potential jurors. After that, those individuals will be questioned one-by-one until they’re pared down to 12 jurors and four alternates.

Jury selection is expected to take just two weeks, but the slow pace has frustrated Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley, who’s presiding over the case.

“I do not have the ability to just store people or keep them longer than planned,” Walmsley said. “I am not comfortable with this. At the rate we’re going, all these plans we have to move these panels through are not going to work,” he said Tuesday after sending home the third panel of jurors who were scheduled for group questioning but attorneys didn’t have time.

While the lack of progress could delay arguments in the trial, which is expected to reach a verdict by Nov. 19, it’s a small price to pay for the impartial jury needed to bring a reputable decision in the case, according to Lara Yeretsian, a defense attorney at Yeretsian Law in Los Angeles.

“You don’t want someone to come back and attack the sanctity of the jury,” she said. “Jurors are there to decide the case on its facts, not based on their emotions, media coverage or what people will think of them once they walk out of that jury room. And that can take a while to find because it’s not easy to pick jurors who have not made up their minds when there is so much coverage.”

Nearly all of the prospective jurors so far have already heard of the case, and in a small town like Brunswick, Georgia, many have some connection to the defendants, one of their relatives, someone in the Arbery family, or someone who has or is involved in the case in some other capacity. One juror questioned on Tuesday said that Gregory McMichael was a friend of his father.

On Wednesday, two jurors questioned said they actually knew Arbery while he was still alive—the first time that’s happened during jury selection. At least one other juror said that they knew Arbey’s father.

Among the ones who don’t have some degree of connection to the people directly involved in the trial, attorneys have had a tough time parsing through potential jurors that haven’t already formed an opinion on a fatal shooting that made international headlines. At least one juror said that he participated in Black Lives Matter demonstrations and that the defendants should be convicted. He was dismissed outright.

All the potential jurors also had easy access to court filings that reference suppressed evidence, including information about Arbery’s mental health and criminal record, VICE News reported Tuesday. Viewing that would disqualify them from serving on the panel. The Glynn County Clerk’s Office told VICE News Tuesday that the judge is aware of the issue and will make a decision soon.

On Tuesday, the judge tempered expectations of the process having attorneys work their way through groups of 20 every day moving forward—and he has that power.

“If he thinks an attorney is asking way too many questions on the same issue, he can tell them to move on,” Yeretsian said. “He can tell them ‘you have two more minutes, finish up.’”