Judge Lisa G. Wood began questioning panels of prospective jurors, some who arrived as far away as Augusta, as the federal hate crimes trial kicked off Monday in Brunswick against the three men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery.
Fifty-two prospective jurors sat through questions about their ability to be impartial and fair when presented evidence against Travis McMichael, his father Greg and their former neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan for the five federal charges they are facing, the most serious being that the three white men killed Arbery, who was Black, due to racial hatred.
The group of citizens represented a diverse mix of residents the more than 40 counties encompassing the U.S. Southern District of Georgia — they were majority white, like the district, and approximately 50% female and male.
Some prospective jurors traveled 195 miles from Augusta, some came from Savannah, a majority minority city like Brunswick, and others drove in from rural townships. This wide geographic net appears to have made the issue of empaneling a jury for the federal case much easier than the state murder trial from last fall.
The three defendants were found guilty of murder in the state case, but they each have pleaded not guilty to the federal hate crimes allegations.
By the end of the day Monday, 20 of the prospective jurors had been struck for cause, while 30 prospective jurors were qualified into the next round of voir dire. The judge told the trial attorneys that she wants to winnow the jury pool to at least 36 qualified candidates, meaning the court is well on its way to that goal.
In the state trial, it took more than two weeks to seat a fair and impartial jury from a pool of Glynn County residents, dozens of whom had preconceived notions of bias or guilt against the defendants and thus were struck out of the jury selection.
In the federal case, knowledge of the Arbery murder case and the defendants’ conviction in state court is not a reason in and of itself for prospective jurors to be struck for cause.
All the jurors who appeared for questioning Monday told the court that they had some pre-existing knowledge of the Arbery case, but one only said that they had pre-existing bias against the defendants. That person was struck for cause.
None of the prospective jurors said they had religious or moral beliefs which would prevent them from finding the defendants guilty or innocent.
One person of the 50 prospective jurors said she knew one of the defendants, William Bryan, because he had done work for her business in the past. Another knew law partner of Greg McMichael’s defense attorney. Both were struck for cause.
The exact reason for others to have been sent home was not immediately clear. While Georgia courts leave many parts of court proceedings open, federal ones give options to the judge and much of the questioning on Monday was conducted in an area of the courtroom which had not been set up with audio access for journalists.
Covid social distancing rules has limited space in the federal courthouse for public viewing. However, Judge Wood is allowing for changes starting Tuesday that will allow questioning for potential jurors will be opened to public view.
Federal court is always closed to visual or sound recordings. However, The Current is part of the media pool allowed into the proceedings and we will update proceedings each day.
The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.