Ahmaud Arbery trial jury selection raises racial questions

Glynn County Detention Center via AP

It’s been well over a year in the making, but jury selection in the trials of Greg and Travis McMichael, as well as Roddie Bryan, are beginning today. The case is being heard in a Superior (Felony) Court, so they will need 12 jurors. Typically, the court will summon up to ten times that many people to be interviewed so they don’t run out before voir dire is finished. While this is going on, there are still motions being filed by both the prosecution and the defense for the judge to consider. To say that the public is heavily invested in the outcome of this trial (on both sides) would be an understatement. Reporters in Glynn County have been talking to a number of Arbery’s supporters and family members and there are a number of demonstrations and activities planned as people brace for what could be a very divisive outcome. (Associated Press)

Jury selection in the murder trial of the McMichaels and William “Roddie” Bryan, a neighbor who joined the pursuit and took the video, is scheduled to begin Monday. For many, it’s not just the three white defendants on trial, but rather a justice system that allowed them to remain free for weeks after they pursued and killed a Black man.

“You’ve got the corruption, then the good ole boy system, then the racism — that’s how I see it,” said [restaurant owner Travis] Riddle, who hopes to break away from his restaurant, Country Boy Cooking, to attend some of the trial.

Local activists plan a weekend rally at the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, a working-class port city 70 miles (112 kilometers) south of Savannah, and a car caravan through the neighborhood where Arbery was slain.

In some ways, the local media coverage and the planned demonstrations are rather worrisome. There was never a chance that the McMichaels and Bryan wouldn’t be tried in the court of public opinion long before they ever sat in front of a jury, but it sounds like the intensity levels out in the streets are already rising. And even those who sound confident that the men are guilty are not at all sure that the defendants won’t wind up walking when all of this is over.

One local attorney who is familiar with the case told reporters that this trial is “going to be won or lost during jury selection.” An attorney for the Arbery family has already publicly stated that the jury will be “drawn from that community that hasn’t established character that can be neutral and fair to someone who looks like Ahmaud.”

On the one hand, comments like that will only serve to whip up the community and set the stage for claims that Arbery never stood a chance of receiving justice. If the defendants walk, it’s basically a sure bet that unrest will follow on a large scale. But at the same time, it’s not as if those concerns might not be valid.

In May of last year I took a deep dive into the history of law enforcement in Glynn County, asking the question, what the heck has been going on down there? A county resident who requested anonymity out of fear of reprisal sent me multiple reports from local news outlets about cops, sheriff’s deputies and even prosecutors in that area who were all either taken down by corruption charges or accused multiple times. Here’s part of what they told me.

“This murder, in my opinion, could have been avoided if the local police enforced the law on themselves. Our cops kill innocent people all the time here. Caroline Small was murdered by a cop who in turn brutally murdered his estranged wife and her boyfriend before committing suicide. After assaulting her in front of uniformed officers. They did nothing. Ahmaud deserves justice. Caroline deserves justice. Katie Kettles and John Hall deserve justice. Our DA is crooked. Our cops are crooked. Our judge was national news at one point for running the drug court program while getting off scot-free for several DUIs. I don’t have the means or platform to make noise, but I advocate for what’s right and I believe that maybe in some small way I can help by getting the word out.”

You hate to paint an entire community with a broad brush like this, but they definitely seem to have been dealing with issues of systemic racism in both law enforcement and the community in general for a long time. Local reports indicate that the McMichaels family is still very popular and many letters have been published claiming that they are being unfairly railroaded in this case. But are they? We’ve dug into the details here more times than I can count and it still all comes down to the final moments in the now-infamous video before Travis McMichael began firing at Ahmaud Arbery. That moment is off-screen and then blocked by part of the truck, so we simply don’t know.

Because a felony court in Georgia requires a unanimous verdict to convict someone in a murder trial, the defense only needs to land one person on the jury who is more inclined to be sympathetic to the defendants and this could be over before it begins. In that sense, the case may indeed be won or lost during jury selection. And when it’s over, there will be a lot of angry people in Glynn County no matter what the verdict is.