Ahmaud Arbery murder trial opens on Monday with hot issue | national


ATLANTA – Almost 20 months to the day, Ahmaud Arbery was shot and killed, the trial of the three men accused of his death begins Monday.

Up to 1,000 residents of Glynn County summoned for jury duty are to appear at Selden Park, a major recreation center in Brunswick, to enable social distancing. Twelve people ultimately chosen from this huge pool will be tasked with deciding whether Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan are guilty of malicious murder, forcible confinement and other charges.

Arbery, an unarmed black man, was shot and killed by Travis McMichael in the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside Brunswick on February 23, 2020. Arbery was 25 years old. The case, which has captured worldwide attention, is also notable in that it made history before it even went to trial.

The McMichaels, both armed and in a van, began chasing Arbery as he ran through their neighborhood after leaving a house under construction nearby. The McMichaels claim they were relying on Georgia’s then-current citizen arrest law. They say this enabled them to detain Arbery because they had “reasonable and probable grounds to suspect” that he was fleeing a scene where a crime had been committed.

Bryan, a neighbor, quickly joined the chase in his own van and took the infamous cell phone video of Arbery’s final moments in life. When the two pickup trucks got stuck at Arbery, he charged Travis McMichael and was fatally shot three times while attempting to get McMichael’s shotgun away from him.

The murder sparked cries of racist self-defense from the McMichaels and Bryan, who are white. Pushing back, lawyers for the three defendants said their clients were suing Arbery not because he was black, but because they believed he had broken into homes in the Satilla Shores neighborhood.

Prosecutors noted that Arbery was wearing nothing when he was killed. In a preliminary hearing, Georgia Bureau of Investigation chief agent Richard Dial said he believed Arbery ran until he could no longer run and turned on Travis McMichael in self-defense instead of turning his back on a man with a shotgun.

At that same hearing, Dial said Bryan told officers in an interview that Travis McMichael, as he stood over dying Arbery, said: “F — ing N-word.” McMichael’s attorneys said Bryan made up this story.

In the aftermath of the fatal shooting, the Georgia General Assembly passed a state hate crime law and its sponsors cited what happened to Arbery as the reason.

The legislator did not stop there. Earlier this year, again citing Arbery’s murder, lawmakers repealed the law allowing individuals to make arrests. With Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper, sitting nearby, Governor Brian Kemp signed the new legislation and said: “Today, in honor of Ahmaud’s memory, we pledge to take this step. forward together. “

James Woodall, former Georgia NAACP chief, said the continued spotlight on the case by Arbery’s family and state and local organizers contributed to the charges ultimately laid more than two months after the murder of Arbery.

“They haven’t given up on Ahmaud’s behalf,” said Woodall, now public policy associate at the Southern Center for Human Rights. “The people of Brunswick and across the state have persisted in their call for justice. In this case, it helped change and empowerment.

There was also on May 5, 2020, the release of Bryan’s graphic video on cell phone. It caught the world’s attention, pushed state authorities to act, and resulted in the McMichaels’ arrest two days later.

The case is being pursued by the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, the fourth of its kind to have the case after the withdrawal of three previous district attorneys. In September, the first prosecutor in charge of the case, former Glynn County District Attorney Jackie Johnson, was indicted for the way she handled the case.

Johnson, who lost her candidacy for re-election, is accused of violating her oath of office for showing “favor and affection” to Greg McMichael, who had worked as an investigator for her for years. She is also charged with obstruction for telling two police officers not to arrest Travis McMichael after the shooting.

So far, prosecutors have won nearly every major preliminary ruling from Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley. Last year, he denied the connection to the McMichaels and Bryans, leaving them in custody.

More recently, Walmsley dealt two blows to the defense. He rejected their request to admit evidence of Arbery’s past run-ins with the law, including two previous convictions and aggressive confrontations with local police. Walmsley also ruled inadmissible evidence of Arbery’s mental illness which defense lawyers say gave Arbery delusions ordering him to steal and injure people.

Defense attorneys argued that this evidence would explain to the jury why Arbery ran away from the McMichaels when he was first confronted with them and why he accused Travis McMichael, who was wielding a shotgun. But prosecutors successfully argued that the three defendants knew nothing about Arbery’s past, so it could not influence their behavior. Walmsley agreed.

Depending on the evidence allowed in front of the jury, the trial may have both sides trying to answer a complicated but central question: how to prove someone is racist or, conversely, how to prove someone is not. not ?

Lawyers representing the McMichaels have asked Walmsley to ban photos of a license plate of the old Georgia state flag on the front of Travis McMichael’s van at the time of the shooting. Georgia’s earlier flag, flown from 1956 to 2001, featured the emblem of the Confederate battle.

By presenting the vanity plaque as evidence, prosecutors hope to show jurors that race played a key role in the McMichaels’ decision to prosecute Arbery. And by trying to keep him out of the way, defense attorneys for the father and son are trying to make it harder for prosecutors to establish racial bias, said Ashleigh Merchant, a defense attorney for Marietta who follows up close the case.

“We all know that the trial will be a question of whether these people were racist or not,” she said.

Against the backdrop of last year’s race for racial justice and the country’s growing political divide, the worldview of would-be jurors will undoubtedly shape the outcome of the trial, experts say.

The racial makeup of the jury that will ultimately be seated will also be closely scrutinized. (In 2019, the US Census Bureau estimated the population of Glynn County to be 69% white and 26% black.)

Denise de La Rue, who has served as a jury consultant in some of the country’s most high-profile cases, said lawyers on both sides will struggle to find jurors unfamiliar with the case.

“I wouldn’t trust a juror who came to Glynn County and said, ‘I don’t know about this case,'” she said. “They are not telling the truth or living in a cave.”

And because public opinion over the shooting is so divided in Georgia’s coastal community, de La Rue believes it can be extremely difficult to get the 12 people in the jury gallery together to achieve unanimity.

“This case has so many layers, more than most,” she said. “And the most important people the defense needs to get rid of are the people who have heard of the case and read about the case and have a very strong opinion on it. They already lean very strongly in their belief that this was an unjustified racially motivated act. “

A good litmus test for lawyers on both sides, she said, would be asking potential jurors what bumper stickers they have on their cars.

“I think the defense would like these jurors to wear a Confederate flag on their bumpers,” she said. “And I think the prosecution would like these jurors to have a Black Lives Matter bumper sticker.” I think a lot of it will depend on how people see the world. “

The merchant agreed, saying the prosecution generally wants the jury to be part of the jury. But in this case, the state may seek jurors who disapprove of gun rights laws, she said.

Conversely, the defense will seek jurors who support “Second Amendment rights, who are anti-vaccine or think COVID is a hoax,” Merchant said. “These are the types of people that I think the defense wants in this case, which is very rare.”

Trying to choose a jury that all parties agree on could take two weeks or more. And even then, it only takes one swipe for the case to end in an overturned trial.

“I think of every case I’ve worked on, it’s more likely to have a suspended jury than I’ve ever seen,” de La Rue said. “I think you can get jurors in there who somehow see it and dig. I think it’s stronger in this case than in any case I’ve ever seen. “

———

© 2021 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Visit to ajc.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.