Opening statements will start Monday in the federal hate crimes case in which U.S. attorneys seek to prove that the three white men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery did so because they are racists.
Prosecutors and defense attorneys for Travis and Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan only took five days to process hundreds of prospective jurors living in the 42 counties which make up the Southern District of Georgia to get the qualified pool of jurors necessary to start the trial.
Their surprisingly brisk pace came after each side agreed to disqualify more than 700 of the 1000 prospective jurors before the start of proceedings Monday. By Friday, they had narrowed the pool of qualified jurors to 64 men and women who have given an oath to be fair and impartial in the case.
The final shape of the jury will be decided Monday morning, but one thing is for certain: It will be predominantly white, just like the jury empaneled in state court last fall when the same defendants were convicted of murdering Arbery.
This new federal case centers on a five-charge indictment that the three men also violated Arbery’s civil rights when they killed him. Travis McMichael is facing 3 federal counts. His father Greg is also facing three charges, while Bryan is facing two charges.
Each man has pleaded not guilty. Jurors in the case must disregard the fact that the two McMichaels were ready to plead guilty to one count in exchange for serving their sentence for the federal crime in federal custody before having to serve their Georgia state convictions.
Unlike the state murder trial, the federal case will center on racial injustice and the defendants’ past words and views of Black Americans are expected to become center stage in the trial next week.
Both the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation have combed the defendants’ social media, text history and other communications to try to find alleged bias against Blacks. Those documents are currently under seal but will be revealed as part of the trial as early as Wednesday.
Less than 1% of all reported hate crimes make it to trial, and an even smaller number result in a conviction. That’s in large part because of the difficulty proving to juries that racism was the prime motive for violence or murder, according to criminal justice experts.
It’s unclear how a majority white jury will view the allegations of racism, but government prosecutors indicated this week that this new evidence, rather than the video taken by Bryan of the three defendants chasing and shooting Arbery, will comprise a significant part of their case.
In discussions Thursday with the judge, the prosecutors and defense attorneys agreed that instead of unsealing that evidence in advance of trial, the judge would keep the documents under seal — out of the public eye — until mid-week next week, when the government said it planned to introduce them in open court. The reason given was that they were of such an explosive nature that they could result in wall-to-wall media coverage and tempt the prospective jurors to read about the case outside of the courtroom.
The defendants have new lawyers in the federal case, men and women qualified to argue in federal court, instead of the counsel who represented them in the state trial.
Attorneys for both sides agreed before the start of formal jury selection on Monday to strike more than 700 people due to their answers given to a written questionnaire sent earlier this month. That agreement helped streamline the process, and quicken the pace of jury selection, according to Judge Lisa G. Wood.
The prospective jurors processed this week at the Frank M. Scarlett Federal Building in Brunswick faced extensive questioning from the judge and attorneys about their opinions of the case and about race and racism in America.
Each day, when potential jurors were asked at the start of questioning whether they believed the defendants were guilty, multiple people raised their hands. Each of those were quickly struck for cause. During second rounds of questioning, others were struck for cause due to questions regarding what they’d already seen or known about the case, or their feelings about racism.
Some of the potential jurors said they believe hate crimes exist in America and are damaging to society. Some said they believe they are “overblown in the media.” One man said that while hate crimes existed earlier in America’s history, racially motivated violence simply did not occur anymore. That person, a corrections officer, was struck for cause.
Of those 64 jurors qualified as of Friday, only about 10% were Black. The remaining white jurors were roughly 50% men and women.
Monday morning, when Judge Wood begins court, she will randomly select 36 names from the group of 64 qualified jurors. Those 36 people will then be subject to strikes allotted to the prosecutors and defense attorneys, a procedure that helps each side shape a jury more favorable to their side.
The resulting group of 16 people will be empaneled as for the case, 12 as the jury and 4 as alternates. Opening statements are then expected by Monday afternoon.
Unlike the state murder trial, the federal case will not be televised. Federal rules prevent any recording of the proceedings in federal court.