The Glynn County government revealed this week that it cost $1 million for the enhanced public safety plans for the trial that convicted Ahmaud Arbery’s killers. Yet taxpayers can expect a rising bill in February, when the federal hate crimes trial against the same three defendants begins and Brunswick again becomes a focus for the national conversation about racial justice.
The federal case is expected to bring to light racially charged texts and social media posts by Travis McMichael and William Bryan, who along with Greg McMichael were convicted of murdering Arbery as he jogged in their majority white subdivision of Satilla Shores on Feb. 23, 2020. Lawyers in Brunswick’s U.S. federal courthouse debated Friday about how much, if any, of those personal communications, which were never brought up during the state trial, will be allowed during the upcoming federal trial.
Given the strong emotions that such evidence could evoke, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies are organizing a county-wide public safety plan during the trial which begins Feb. 7. The U.S. Marshal Service, which oversees Brunswick’s downtown federal courthouse, is meeting weekly with local law enforcement and state agencies with the goal of ensuring an expedient trial, and keeping daily life in the county from being disrupted, according to David Lyons, the U.S. Marshal for the Southern District of Georgia.
The multi-agency group includes Georgia Highway Patrol, Georgia Emergency Management Authority, the sheriff’s department and county and city police.
The McMichaels and Bryan, who are all white, have been indicted on three federal charges including threatening and killing Arbery because of the color of his skin, as well as attempting to kidnap him and forcibly detain him against his will. The three defendants have pleaded not guilty, and they are appealing their state murder conviction.
“I can assure you and your readers that we are taking every possible step to ensure a smooth, expedient trial with as little disruption to daily lives as possible,” Lyons said.
Dozens of prospective jurors will be called from multiple counties that are overseen by the Southern District of Georgia in hopes of finding a jury pool that has not been inundated with news about the murder case that concluded in November.
State prosecutors never overtly raised the issue of a racially-based motive for Arbery’s murder, although Brunswick and Glynn County’s racial history suffused that case. It took 73 days after Arbery’s arrest for law enforcement to arrest the 25-year-old jogger’s killers and four different district attorneys to bring charges against the three men.
Since the original indictment, The Current has revealed a troubling pattern by county police of implicit bias against Black residents.
As well, the Glynn County police chief at the time of Arbery’s murder has been indicted on criminal charges unrelated to the trial, while the former district attorney is facing criminal charges related to her conduct in the Arbery case.
Two officials who participated in the unified command set up for the Arbery murder case said the impetus for the multiagency preparations were fears held by many residents in the majority white Glynn County that liberal mobs would violently rampage through the Golden Isles during the trial.
The unified command structure is part of a mandated response under Georgia law to a public safety event, such as a hurricane or high-profile public event that involves multiple jurisdictions. Glynn County officials last summer considered the state trial to be such an event and called in Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency and other state agencies to help prepare for it.
At a town hall meeting at the Marshes of Glynn Library in October, several county residents voiced fears to the commanders of what formally became known as Operation Golden Horizon about what they do to prevent gangs from smashing downtown store windows or blocking the causeway between Brunswick and St. Simons Island.
The murder trial concluded peacefully, with daily life unaffected by the quiet prayer vigils and inspirational rallies attended by national and local civil rights leaders outside the courthouse.
Although municipal streets were quiet, in private the multiple law enforcement agencies working with Operation Golden Horizon experienced their own struggles over intelligence sharing and asset management, according to an after-action report reviewed by The Current.
That 51-page memo, which was approved by the commanders of the unified command on Dec. 15, 2021, alleged that the sheriff’s department was a weak link and accused him of actively hampering their tactical plans.
“Sheriff Neal Jump has, through his actions, his direction of Glynn County Sheriff’s Office (GCSO) leadership and personnel, and his influence and relationships with others in positions of authority, attempted to disrupt, deter, hamper, obstruct, usurp, and dissolve Unified Command,” reads the first paragraph of the memorandum.
Sheriff Jump did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It is unclear whether he has seen the memo. Several county commissioners have praised the sheriff for keeping courthouse operations running smoothly through the murder trial and helping repair trust with Brunswick’s majority Black residents which were strained over the original failure to arrest Arbery’s killers.
In a county budget meeting last week, Glynn County chief financial officer Tamara Munson reported that the total bill for security related to the Arbery trial was $1,085,000. Over a third of that total went toward overtime for law enforcement, she said. The sheriff’s department, which is responsible for securing the courthouse and transporting the defendants to and from trial, billed the county $212,182 for overtime. Other expenditures related to the unified command totaled $697,335.
U.S. Marshal Lyons did not elaborate on what circumstances he was preparing for during the federal trial. Glynn County Police did not respond to questions, nor did the Georgia Emergency Management and Homeland Security Agency or the Glynn County Sheriff.
Lyons said that he was not aware of any dysfunction among Glynn County law enforcement agencies, nor was he aware of the Operation Golden Horizon memo. He said that all agencies participating in his planning meetings were working closely together without trouble.
“Many, if not all, local and state agencies have been present at our planning sessions. There has been nothing but cooperation from all at this point,” he said.