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Murder trial in Ahmaud Arbery’s killing begins with sparring over questions about race

Attorney Ben Crump, left, and relatives of Ahmaud Arbery speak to the media outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., on Oct. 18. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)
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BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Prosecutors and defense attorneys sparred over how much potential jurors should be questioned about their views on race on the first day of the murder trial in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, signaling the central role that allegations of racism could play in litigation over the Black man’s death.

The trial of three White men began Monday with debate over whether hot-button issues such as the Confederate flag and the Black Lives Matter movement are relevant in determining whether a potential juror can impartially weigh the facts of Arbery’s killing, which prompted a national outcry last year weeks before George Floyd’s murder galvanized racial justice protests worldwide.

Attorneys for the defendants — Greg McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan — say they tried to carry out a legitimate “citizen’s arrest” in coastal Georgia and then shot Arbery in self-defense. But the prosecution has framed the case as one of three White vigilantes who racially profiled an unarmed jogger and then cornered him with pickup trucks two miles from his home.

Now the parties are trying to assemble an impartial panel of 12 jurors and four alternates from the Georgia county where the widely publicized case unfolded. The process could take weeks, and many prospective jurors questioned Monday indicated that they had negative views of the defendants. Legal experts expect the trial will be filled with potentially polarizing and personal issues for jurors — over race, guns and questions of self-defense that have long stoked debates around “stand your ground” laws.

“This is a case that has garnered significant attention in this community as well as around the country,” Judge Timothy Walmsley said Monday as he rejected a defense request to screen jurors by asking whether participation in the case makes them worry for their safety or livelihood.

“This is not an easy thing for anybody,” the judge said.

Ahmaud Arbery’s killing changed his Georgia community. Now three men will stand trial for murder.

But some potential jurors worried later about personal consequences from their service in the case.

“I’m not excited about this whole thing. How would I feel if I was asked to render a verdict that was unpopular?” one retiree said. “Any verdict, guilty or innocent, is going to be unpopular with some people.”

“Maybe I’d even feel unsafe,” she said.

All three defendants have pleaded not guilty and said they chased the 25-year-old Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020, because they suspected him of neighborhood break-ins.

The case went without arrests for more than two months. Then leaked video of the shooting went viral, weeks before Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis sparked a broader reckoning with racism in the United States. Six months after former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in Floyd’s death, some see this case as another high-profile test of the justice system and its fairness to Black Americans.

The video at the center of the case, filmed by Bryan, shows Arbery running down a residential street toward the McMichaels, who are both armed. Arbery runs around Travis McMichael’s truck and then toward the defendant, struggling with him briefly. Then Arbery is shot.

Monday began with lawyers battling over what questions would help them flag potential jurors for further interviewing. The goal is not to find people unfamiliar with the case, lawyers say — just to find people who can fairly consider all the evidence.

Lawyers can object to any potential juror “for cause,” citing a reason they do not believe the juror can fairly adjudicate. Each party also has a limited number of chances to strike jurors without giving a reason.

“I think it’s going to be a very time-consuming process, much more so than a regular trial in this part of the world,” said Caren Morrison, a professor at the Georgia State University College of Law. She said it may be hard to find people without opinions on a “visceral” case on which “passions run really high.”

What you need to know about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and the murder trial

The prosecution objected to proposed questions about jurors’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement and whether they believe anyone who opposes it is racist. BLM “has absolutely nothing to do with this particular case,” said prosecutor Linda Dunikoski of the Cobb County district attorney’s office. She also objected to a question about whether jurors believed the case was important in revealing racism in the community.

In the end, the judge allowed some questioning related to the racial justice movement, in which Arbery has become a rallying cry. Jurors will also be queried about the justice system’s fairness to Black and White people and whether the Confederate flag is racist.

The judge has yet to rule on a defense request to bar jurors from seeing Travis McMichael’s license plate, which features an old Georgia flag that has the Confederate battle emblem.

“Both sides are really going to have to dig deep to see what these jurors have as far as their own personal experiences, and I think that’s actually more relevant really than the news coverage,” said Ashleigh Merchant, a Georgia attorney who has been following the case and knows lawyers on both sides. “Because these are really sensitive issues.”

One woman summoned for jury duty called Bryan’s decision to film the confrontation “disgusting and vicious.” Another said the case is hard to escape in the news, on social media and at his job. “It’s everywhere,” the man said.

“Yes, I’ve said that they were guilty,” he said of the three defendants. But he said his opinions could be swayed.

The Glynn County Superior Court has summoned 1,000 people for possible service. Six-hundred people were called in Monday, while 400 may have to report next Monday. Court officials said the unusually large number reflects the potential difficulties of finding impartial jurors for such a well-known case. Normally, the court might call 150 people for a criminal trial.

Eight people were dismissed from jury service by Monday evening, with no decision made on four others who were questioned individually.

Parties have pressed ahead with the trial despite persistent coronavirus concerns that have led others in Georgia to reschedule cases, amid fear that even one juror’s illness could trigger a mistrial. Merchant said she just had a case pushed to May for that reason.

An infection could force many in the court into extended quarantine, she said, and any lengthy pause raises concerns because jurors are supposed to deliberate while information is fresh in their minds. The longer a trial, she said, the higher the risk the coronavirus disrupts it.

Wearing a mask Monday, the judge told potential jurors to keep their faces covered. Those summoned reported to a nearby sports complex to take roll call before heading in staggered groups to the courthouse, where they waited in lines spaced apart.

Arbery’s parents and several aunts attended the proceedings. Emerging from the courthouse Monday afternoon, Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, spoke to demonstrators eager to show support.

“We are confident that justice will prevail,” she said.

Outside the courthouse, demonstrators passed the time singing gospel songs and talking to the dozen television cameras set up. Most were Black women who came from Atlanta and Washington to advocate for racial equality and justice. But locals came, too.

Annie Polite, an 87-year-old Brunswick native, joined in the vigil after lunch, using a walker to reach a sunny patch on the lawn.

“I’ve seen a lot in my 87 years in Georgia,” she said. “Some things have changed, but it’s not enough. We have to lift our voices up here in search of justice. That’s why I’m here. Folks are sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

Knowles reported from Washington.

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