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Nearly all-White jury picked for trial in Ahmaud Arbery’s killing, over prosecution’s protests

The three White men charged with killing 25-year-old Black man Ahmaud Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020 will stand trial in Georgia before an almost all-White jury. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)
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BRUNSWICK, Ga. — An overwhelmingly White jury will weigh murder charges in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery after the defense struck 11 out of 12 Black people from the final pool for a nationally watched case in which race looms large.

Prosecutors alleged racial discrimination Wednesday in jury selection, formally challenging eight of the defense picks. But the judge rejected the prosecutors’ argument, saying the defense gave sufficient reasons other than race for their choices.

Black people made up a quarter of the finalist jurors; the jury ultimately included one Black man and 11 White people.

The clash came in the final hours of the more than two-week-long jury-selection process in the trial of three White men accused of racially profiling a Black jogger in February 2020. Arbery was chased by the men in trucks and fatally shot in the coastal community of Satilla Shores near Brunswick. The case — which went months without arrests before a leaked video kindled national outrage — helped fuel historic racial justice protests ignited by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan have pleaded not guilty to charges including murder, aggravated assault and false imprisonment. They also face federal hate crime charges for which another trial is set next year.

The defendants argue they had valid grounds to carry out a “citizen’s arrest” after suspecting Arbery of neighborhood break-ins. Travis McMichael has said he shot Arbery in self-defense. The video at the center of the case, filmed by Bryan, shows Arbery running past the McMichaels’ truck and then toward Travis McMichael, with whom he struggles as shots are fired.

The jury will return to court Friday morning.

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

Defense lawyers said Wednesday that they struck the Black potential jurors for reasons other than their race. One knew Arbery and shared a desire to “keep his name alive,” they said. Another came to court believing Arbery was “hunted” and “killed like an animal.” Yet another seemed promising at first, they said, but was about to get married to a woman who had expressed support for Arbery on her Facebook page, using the rallying cry “I Run with Maud.”

The prosecution countered that many jurors arrived at the Brunswick courthouse with feelings about the case, which has drawn worldwide media coverage and strikes at issues that may be deeply personal for those called in. Yet they were kept in the running because they said they could still consider the case fairly.

One thousand people were summoned for potential service last month, an early sign of how challenging it could be to pick a jury from the small community in which both Arbery and the defendants lived. Questioning of potential jurors stretched more than two weeks as person after person was dismissed, many after saying they did not believe they could be impartial. Some worried about backlash for whatever verdict they might deliver.

The defense has argued that Arbery’s race has no bearing on the case, and attorneys sought to convince the judge Wednesday that the stricken jurors’ race, too, was incidental.

“Most of the jury selection in this case … is the epitome of the lesser of two evils,” said Laura Hogue, a lawyer for Gregory McMichael. “We are stuck between a rock and hard place given the fact that the majority of the African American jurors that came in here were struck for cause immediately because of their firm opinions.”

Hogue said the defense had good reason to strike Black prospective jurors with strong feelings, even those who said they could set their opinions aside. “Would you want that juror judging you in this case? … The answer is a resounding ‘No.'”

The defense also struck some White potential jurors, while prosecutors used all of their strikes on White jurors.

Ben Crump, an attorney for Arbery’s family, said in a statement Thursday that the jury should reflect the broader community and called the exclusion of Black jurors "a cynical effort to help these cold-blooded killers escape justice.”

What you need to know about Ahmaud Arbery's killing and the trial

Many potential jurors were previously removed from the pool “for cause,” because they were deemed not qualified or had obligations that would interfere with their service. Lawyers were then given a limited number of “peremptory strikes,” for which they need not give a reason.

When a strike is challenged as racially motivated, however, lawyers must give a “race-neutral” justification for their choice.

Those reasons are “pretty easy to find,” said Ashleigh Merchant, a Georgia attorney who has been following the case and knows lawyers on both sides.

Upholding the defense’s strikes, Judge Timothy Walmsley echoed that the court cannot reseat jurors because of a racial imbalance. The strike prevails if lawyers can give a reasonably specific and relevant explanation.

As Cobb County prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said that the defense’s stated reasons for excluding Black potential jurors were not “genuine,” courtroom discussions grew heated. Kevin Gough, an attorney for Bryan, called the prosecution’s arguments “Kafkaesque” and declared, “I feel like I’m in the Twilight Zone.”

“In what free country would a juror who went on a bike ride to raise money for the opposing side’s legal team … the defendant could not strike them for that reason, and that reason alone?” he said.

Defense lawyers noted that some of the people they used peremptory strikes on were ones they had unsuccessfully tried to remove “for cause” earlier.

“This case is important for a lot of reasons to a lot of people,” said Bob Rubin, an attorney for Travis McMichael. “And I think it is incumbent upon all of us … [not to] ascribe inappropriate or bad motives until you know the facts.”

The strikes mean the jury weighing Arbery’s killing will be markedly less diverse than the one that earlier this year convicted former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in the murder of Floyd, who was Black. Chauvin, who is White, knelt on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes in a scene also captured in viral video.

The jurors who decided Derek Chauvin’s fate

More than 300 potential jurors for the Chauvin case were whittled to a final group of 12 that included one Black woman, two multiracial women and three Black men. Minneapolis is about 19 percent Black and 64 percent White.

Glynn County, where the jury in Arbery’s killing was drawn, is about 27 percent Black and nearly 70 percent White, according to census data.

The jury selection process kicked off last month with prosecutors and defense attorneys sparring over what questions should be used to screen each panel of prospective jurors. They were especially divided over questions probing people’s views on race.

Candidates were ultimately queried on issues such as their participation in “social justice demonstrations,” their support for Black Lives Matter, their personal histories with racial discrimination and whether they found an old Georgia flag — featuring the Confederate battle emblem — to be a “racist” symbol.

While lawyers disclosed the racial breakdown for the jury of 12, it was not clear Wednesday who exactly was picked as a jury member and who was selected as one of four alternates out of 16 people told to return to court.

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