BRUNSWICK, Ga. — In a county of less than 85,000 people, more than 1% of its population was summoned as prospective jurors in the high-profile trial of three white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man who was jogging in their Georgia neighborhood.
Ronald Adams, Glynn County Superior Court clerk, said 600 people were summoned to appear in court Monday, Oct. 18, and 400 more are summoned to appear next Monday.
“A little less than 50% of the ones that were summoned showed up yesterday. Some had been excused for various reasons and mail got returned because of bad addresses,” Adams said.
Adams said the selection process is planned to take two-and-a-half weeks, but could be longer or shorter, depending on how fast the lawyers make selections.
On day two of jury selections Tuesday, Arbery's aunt, Theawanza Brooks, had already appeared frustrated with the process as only approximately 40 jurors had gone through preliminary examination process (voir dire) by Tuesday afternoon. Some of those questions pertained to how the person views the Confederate flag, the Black Lives Matter movement and racism in general.
"If the judge doesn't take out some of these questions that they're asking, we're going to be here longer than two weeks," Brooks said. "There's no way, with the questions that they're asking, that you're not going to find anyone anywhere that doesn't have any sort of bias when it comes to this. You're going to have to narrow down which biases are more important versus the ones that are not in order to be able to pick the jury."
Less than 10 of 20 prospective jurors in the voir dire process yesterday were sent home, Adams said. Prospects are being brought to the juror room in groups of 20 during the course of the weeks to narrow down a pool of 12 jurors and four alternates.
The group scheduled for Tuesday afternoon were postponed to Wednesday morning due to lengthy questioning.
“There’s two parts to voir dire,” Adams said. “There’s general, where they inquire about general things about qualifying. Then if there are questions after that, they take jurors one at a time into the court room to ascertain if they have biases or knowledge [of the cases] or anything that would keep them from being a good juror.”
In juror notices mailed to residents, a questionnaire was included asking if they’ve discussed or followed the case, what knowledge they have of the case, and if they visited the Satilla Shores neighborhood since February 2020.
Juror candidates are also asked if they are friends or relatives of the defendants, have seen video of the shooting and to list their social media accounts to check for any comments they may have made on the case via social media.
Arbery was shot Feb. 23, 2020 while jogging in the Satilla Shores subdivision in Brunswick, Glynn County, where Blacks make up only 24% of the county's population. Gregory McMichael and his son, Travis McMichael, say they were attempting to perform a citizen's arrest on Arbery when they followed behind him in a truck, saying they believed he burglarized a vacant home in the neighborhood.
"Someone can't break into a home that's under construction. There's no one there and nothing there to take. What of value could he have taken?" said Brooks, noting Arbery's interest in pursuing a career as an electrician. "I noticed when I was watching the video [surveillance from inside the home], he was kinda looking at the electric box as if he was trying to figure out the different cords is what it looked like to me when I saw him in there standing and looking."
The McMichaels' neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan Jr., later followed behind them in his truck, as seen on a video he recorded, which ultimately captures Travis McMichael shooting Arbery after a brief tussle.
In general, Georgia — like other states — at the time of the incident allowed a private person to arrest a suspected offender if the offense is committed in his or her presence or within his or her immediate knowledge. “If the offense is a felony and the offender is escaping or attempting to escape, a private person may arrest him upon reasonable and probable grounds of suspicion,” according to Justia, a legal database.
“It’s a very unique situation. You have white men with guns in a truck going after somebody who at most, if anything, did some theft and apparently may be just a trespasser,” said Henry Sherrod III, a civil rights attorney out of Florence, Alabama. “I think they’re going to have a hard time fitting within that statute. I also think there’s a real concern in any case like this that depending on the type of jury you get, it’s going to be hard to get a unanimous jury willing to convict these guys.”
In May this year, Gov. Brian Kemp and the General Assembly repealed the state’s citizens arrest laws, which now prohibit bystanders from detaining anyone and from using deadly force to detain someone. Owners of retail and food service establishments are the only non-law enforcement personnel allowed to make citizen's arrests if there is suspicion of theft, per HB 479.
Georgia Sen. Frank Ginn, R-Danielsville, was the lone vote against the bill, saying he thinks that it takes away civil "Good Samaritan" duties in protecting others.
"If I know of a circumstance that there was a violent crime that has just been committed and I let the criminal free, then they may never be caught and that's a concern," Ginn said. "For me, I want to try to make sure I give the legal system any help that I can to bring people justice."
Ginn said people should not try to detain someone unless they have a definitive understanding of the situation.
"There's no way I'm going to look at a situation without knowing all of the parts of it. ... If I improperly detain you, you have the right and ability to bring that to justice, but it's one of those things when you interject yourself into a situation, you have to understand that there's repercussions on anything that transpires from that," Ginn added.
Following Arbery's death, Georgia lawmakers also approved a new hate crimes bill that imposed additional penalties for crimes motivated by a victim's race, color, religion, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender or disability. The three men, one of whom can be heard on the video uttering a racial slur after the shooting, are facing federal hate crime charges.
State indictment charges on the three men include felony murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment.
According to court documents, the defendants’ jail call records will be included in evidence after Chatham County Judge Timothy Walmsley — appointed to oversee the case — denied their request to exclude all jail calls on Oct. 8.
Defendants’ attorneys said admitting the calls into evidence violates due process, their Fourth Amendment Right to equal protections and are a violation under spousal privilege; however, the state argued the recordings include incriminating statements and defendants were aware their jail calls were being recorded.
Attorneys for the defendants wanted to admit evidence into court records regarding Arbery’s mental health and previous incidents he had with law enforcement, including a shoplifting incident and using swear words to officers in the past. Walmsley later ruled against admitting that history, stating the defendants did not know of Arbery’s past to judge him on prior to the shooting.
The arrests of the McMichaels and Bryan came months after the shooting, after the release of Bryan’s car video and public protests.
Former Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson was indicted Sept. 2 on charges of violation of oath of public officer and obstruction of a police officer for “showing favor and affection” to Greg McMichael, a former employee of her office, and “failing to treat Ahmaud Arbery and his family fairly and with dignity.”
After recusing her office from the investigation, she is accused of recommending Waycross Judicial Circuit DA George Barnhill, who George McMichael had previously sought assistance from in the case.
The indictment also alleges that Johnson directed two police officers not to place Travis McMichael under arrest after shooting Arbery.
Johnson, a Republican, was voted out of office last November after receiving receiving only 47% of votes to the victor Keith Higgins, an independent.
Nearly 20 months after Arbery's death, Brooks hopes the trial will lead to closure for their family.
"We want to go ahead and get this conviction and get justice for Ahmaud so we can move forward with our lives," Arbery's aunt said. "This is where the grieving process starts to come together and we start to get closure, but until we hear 'Guilty on all counts' we still won't have that closure."