Jury selection is underway for the trial of three white men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, in Brunswick, Georgia in February 2020. Arbery’s death was one of several last year that sparked a wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations across the country.
The three accused are Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and their family friend and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan. The father and son claimed they suspected Arbery may have been responsible for burglaries in their neighborhood, but police have found no such link. The McMichaels tried to stop Arbery while he was out on a jog, and a fight subsequently broke out, during which Arbery was shot three times with a shotgun.
Bryan joined the McMichaels in chasing Arbery and allegedly hit Arbery with his truck. He was present for the killing and filmed it on his phone. The three men were allowed to walk away from the scene and weren’t arrested until early May 2020, when the video Bryan captured was made public. This disturbing video is expected to play a major role in the trial.
In Georgia state court, the three face charges of aggravated assault, false imprisonment, malice and felony murder. They have also been indicted on federal hate crime and attempted kidnapping charges. The Department of Justice has accused the men of targeting Arbery because of his race. They have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Travis McMichael’s attorney has said the defendants were trying to detain Arbery under Georgia’s former citizen’s arrest law and they killed Arbery in self-defense when he tried to take possession of Travis’s gun.
Jacquelyn Johnson, the district attorney who failed to prosecute the killing, has been voted out of office and indicted on charges of violating her oath of public officer and obstructing a police officer. She has been accused of favoring Gregory McMichael, who was previously employed in her office.
Since Arbery’s killing, the Georgia state legislature has passed the state’s first hate crimes statute and repealed the citizen’s arrest law.
The case of Arbery’s killing has been highly publicized, sparked outrage across the nation, and rocked the coastal Georgia community in which it took place. Given this widespread impact and controversy, court officials are finding it challenging to find twelve jurors and four alternates who don’t know the defendants or the victim and who are undecided about the case. Many prospective jurors who were questioned Monday expressed negative views on the defendants. One thousand potential jurors have been summoned for the trial, 10 times the average number. The jury selection could take more than two weeks.
The trial is expected to involve controversial and personal issues for jurors, including questions of race, guns, and “stand your ground” self-defense laws. Prosecutors and defense attorneys have been debating to what extent potential jurors should be questioned about their opinions on race and issues such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the display of the Confederate flag. Such questions may be relevant in determining the impartiality of a potential juror, considering the role accusations of racism will play during the trial.
The murder trial comes six months after another legal reckoning with race, when former police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted in the death of George Floyd and sentenced to 22 1⁄2 years in prison. Many see the Arbery case as another test of how the justice system treats Black Americans.