Jury Selection Begins in Trial Over Ahmaud Arbery’s Killing

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — A complicated jury selection process kicked off Monday in the trial of the three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man they had chased through a coastal Georgia neighborhood, with lawyers sparring over what kinds of questions the hundreds of potential jurors could be subjected to, including questions about their views on race and the Confederate battle flag.

The slaying of Mr. Arbery, which was filmed by one of the men and viewed worldwide, sparked outrage and protest. In and around Brunswick, a city of about 15,000 people, it led to a resurgence of civil rights organizing and political activism. On Monday, there was a palpable sense of tension as journalists, TV trucks and activists gathered outside of the Glynn County Courthouse amid moss-draped trees and a gentle breeze off the nearby East River.

A few dozen protesters, some of whom had come from out of town, carried signs declaring “Justice for Ahmaud.”

It may be difficult to find local residents who have not closely followed the most explosive murder case in South Georgia in decades, but the court system is making an extraordinary effort to seat a local jury. As many as 1,000 people could eventually be called for service in Glynn County, which has a population of about 84,500.

Officials have set up an intake center at a gymnasium in a local park, where potential jurors will be split into groups of 20 and given dates to report to the courthouse downtown. Ronald M. Adams, the clerk of Glynn County Superior Court, said 600 people were instructed to report to the gym on Monday; another 400, he said, could be called next Monday if a jury has not yet been seated.

The question of whether the three men accused in Mr. Arbery’s killing — Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan — were motivated by racism will quite likely be a major theme in a case that some have cast as a brutal lynching, and which the defendants’ lawyers have described as a vigorous neighborhood watch effort that ended in tragedy.

Paul Butler, a law professor at Georgetown University and former federal prosecutor, said the race of the jurors might prove to be one of the most important determinants of the trial’s outcome. Glynn County is about 69 percent white and 27 percent Black.

Mr. Butler described the case as a “tragic mash-up” of the 2013 trial of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who killed Trayvon Martin in Florida, and this year’s trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd. Like Mr. Arbery, both Mr. Martin and Mr. Floyd were Black.

“In George Zimmerman’s trial, five of the six jurors were white, and Zimmerman was acquitted. At Derek Chauvin’s trial, the jury was very racially diverse, and Chauvin was convicted,” Professor Butler said. “The race of jurors matters in these cases.”

A state investigator has said in a previous court hearing that Travis McMichael, who shot Mr. Arbery three times after the trio pursued him through the neighborhood, has used racist slurs. But the defendants are expected to argue that they were motivated by suspicion that Mr. Arbery had committed break-ins in the neighborhood, and that they were acting in accordance with Georgia’s citizen’s arrest law, a measure that this year was largely gutted by state lawmakers who were disturbed by Mr. Arbery’s killing.

The killing in February also prompted Georgia lawmakers to pass a hate crimes statute. Later this year, the three pursuers are scheduled to face trial on charges that they violated the federal hate crimes law.

Inside the courtroom on Monday, Judge Timothy R. Walmsley spent the bulk of the morning refereeing a debate between prosecutors and lawyers for the defense over details of the jury selection process, including the nature of questions that potential jurors would hear.

He rejected some questions and accepted others that the defense wanted to ask on the topic of race. A question asking jurors whether the killing had revealed something about racism in the community was struck. But he allowed a question about whether people who display the Confederate battle flag were racist.

The judge has not yet ruled upon a defense motion to keep out of court the fact that Travis McMichael displayed on his pickup truck an image of the old Georgia State flag, which incorporates the Confederate battle flag. He must also decide on a motion by prosecutors to keep from jurors a toxicologist’s finding that Mr. Arbery had “a very minor amount” of THC, the main psychoactive compound in cannabis, in his blood at the time of his death.

The first group of 20 potential jurors marched into a jury assembly room after lunchtime on Monday. A majority of them appeared to be white. At one point, Judge Walmsley asked if they had a neutral opinion of the case. Only one person raised a hand. About half raised their hands when asked if they were currently partial to one side or the other.

Linda Dunikoski, the lead prosecutor, told the group the trial could last a month, which would come after a jury selection process that may last two weeks or more. Outside, protesters had set up folding chairs facing the columned courthouse, watching and waiting.

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