BRUNSWICK, Ga. >> Jury selection got off to a fast start today in the federal hate crimes trial of three white men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, with the judge conducting much of the questioning to determine whether potential jurors had unshakable opinions about the highly publicized case behind closed doors.
U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood predicted before adjourning that a final panel of 12 main jurors and four alternates will be seated at the beginning of next week on Feb. 14. That was after she deemed 30 of the 52 jury pool members questioned Monday capable of serving fairly.
Father and son Greg and Travis McMichael armed themselves and used a pickup truck to chase the 25-year-old Arbery after spotting him running in their neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded cellphone video of Travis McMichael blasting Arbery with a shotgun.
All three were convicted of murder in a Georgia state court the day before Thanksgiving and sentenced to life in prison a month ago. Federal prosecutors charged them separately them with hate crimes, alleging that the white men targeted Arbery and violated his civil rights because he was Black. The McMichales and Bryan have pleaded not guilty to the federal charges.
Arbery’s killing became part of a larger national reckoning over racial injustice, and the case’s notoriety was readily apparent on the first day of jury selection in the second trial.
“Has anyone never heard anything about this case?” Wood asked jury pool members questioned in two separate groups today. Both times, all sat silently for several seconds with their hands at their sides.
“I’ll let the record reflect that no hands were raised,” the judge said, adding that “everyone has heard something about the case.”
It’s unclear what potential jurors said they already know about the case. That’s because the judge and attorneys spent hours questioning them individually outside of the courtroom where reporters and other members of the public couldn’t hear their answers.
Wood said she planned to make more of the questioning public when jury selection resumes Tuesday, with potential jurors being asked in open court about their exposure to news stories, social media posts and other information about Arbery’s killing.
However, the judge said any matters dealing with jury pool members’ health as well as questions about their views on racial issues would continue to be conducted in a more private setting with just the attorneys, defendants and court staff present.
“That is a necessity to make sure we get people’s honest answers,” Wood said.
Jury selection took more than two weeks in the state’s murder case. The search for an impartial jury in federal court comes after the McMichaels and Bryan were convicted and sentenced in the widely publicized first trial, and just a week after attorneys announced the McMichaels planned to plead guilty in the federal case in a deal with prosecutors that quickly fell apart.
One potential juror was dismissed today after raising her hand when the judge asked if anyone already believes any of the three defendants are guilty. Another got excused after raising his hand when the group was asked if the racial nature of the charges would make it difficult to be impartial.
One woman was dismissed from the jury pool after telling the judge she has known Bryan for several years.
“He’s worked on mowers and farm equipment for me for about the last six years,” said the woman, identified only as juror No. 3.
She added: “I feel sorry for him.”
The judge told potential jurors that, once a jury gets selected, she expects the hate crimes trial to last between seven and 12 days.
In the state murder trial, defense attorneys argued the defendants were justified in chasing Arbery because they suspected he had committed crimes in their neighborhood. Travis McMichael testified that he opened fire in self-defense after Arbery attacked him with fists and grabbed for his shotgun.
The McMichaels and Bryan have all filed motions for a new trial in Glynn County Superior Court, where they were convicted of murder and other charges. It can take months for that process to play out. If the motions for a new trial are denied, they will have 30 days to file a notice of appeal with the Georgia Supreme Court.