The first week has wrapped for the trial of three men accused of killing Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery. What is the status of the laborious effort to find a jury of Glynn County residents who can impartially hear the divisive case that has drawn national attention and soul-seeking in Brunswick and Glynn County about race and racial injustice?
So far a Georgia judge qualified 23 people to potentially serve on a jury that will decide the fate of three neighbors charged with killing the 25-year-old Arbery who ran through their neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020: Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, all of whom are white.
That’s just over a third of the way through the first step in jury selection. Approximately 600 county residents were called to be part of the pool under consideration. The court is moving through a first round of questioning to winnow that number to 64 people who can be considered fair and unbiased before moving to a second stage of questioning.
Four groups of prospective jurors in groups of 20 were questioned this week, a format based on COVID-19 restrictions for social distancing.
The hope is that the 600 people can be whittled down to a group of 64, a mathematical outcome needed before moving to the second round of questioning where the defense and prosecutors will have a second round of questions. The judge has allowed each of the three defense teams 8 preemptive strikes to remove potential jurors who they deem detrimental to their case, while the prosecutor has 12 preemptive strikes. If each of those choices are made, there will still be enough candidates remaining for a complete jury of 12 and four alternates.
The jury selection process is expected to take two to three more weeks, as finding the people who have no ties to the defendants and who have not established hard opinions about the case is difficult, given the small size of the county and the outrage that Arbery’s death sparked.
Those called up for the jury pool and questioned so far include a teacher, a crane operator, a hair stylist, a retail store worker and federal law enforcement officers.
About half of those questioned so far have been struck for cause — either because they were above the age limit of 70 years old for jury selection, they had a qualified hardship like caring for an infirm relative or that they had such strong opinions that they could not be fair and impartial.
A military veteran when called for questioning Wednesday told the prosecutor that his mind was already made up about whether a crime was committed that day in February. “It was a horrible event. I’ve seen the video. I’m very familiar with it. I can’t be an impartial juror. No way,” he said, adding that he believes people of color are not treated fairly in the criminal justice system. He was struck from the list for cause.
Brunswick is predominantly Black but sits in the overwhelmingly white Glynn County. Race is an issue that for the last 18 months has been discussed in the community as well as in relation to the case.
Judge Timothy Walmsley has barred the media from releasing identifying information about jurors so that they can be free to express their opinions without retribution.
“It’s a small enough town,” another prospective juror told lawyers for the defendants Thursday. “I think it would be naïve to think there couldn’t be real-world repercussions.”
The slow pace of jury selection has irritated Judge Walmsley, but the close-knit nature of the community, and the high profile job held by the elder McMichael as a former police officer and longtime investigator for the Brunswick area district attorney’s office illustrates how difficult it will be to impanel a fair and unbiased jury.
For example, one prospective juror Thursday said he has known all three defendants “for years,” and he and the McMichaels were members of the same hunting club.
“I just feel like I know them too good,” he told prosecutor Linda Dunikoski. “I want to be honest.”
One prospective juror, a woman said she knew six other jurors, including her son, a former student and current and former coworkers.
Others told the lawyers that they were acquaintances of the Arberys. Some attended school with Ahmaud’s father and knew an aunt. Another person had a son who played football with Ahmaud at Brunswick High School.
But several prospective jurors also said they knew very little about the case, in large part because they shunned the news and social media. “I prefer to spend my time in other ways,” said one woman. She is among the 23 who have qualified so far.
A male juror, who is also among those qualified, said that while he had seen the cellphone video of the fatal shooting and watched GBI agents testify about the case on TV, “there’s a whole lot I don’t know.”
Asked if he could render a fair and impartial verdict, the man answered, “I honestly believe I could.”
Arbery’s parents, who have attended court all week, both expressed confidence that a jury will be seated and deliver a fair verdict.