Teachers, auto mechanics and retirees summoned to jury duty in the slaying of Ahmaud Arbery are being questioned about their thoughts on racism, their social media habits and whether they own guns, while hundreds more await their turn.
Finding an impartial jury won’t be quick or easy in this coastal community of 85,000 people. The 25-year-old Black man was chased by three white men and fatally shot on Feb. 23, 2020, as he ran in their neighborhood. His death stunned people across the U.S. after graphic cellphone video of the killing leaked online two months later. The shooting dominated local news, social media feeds and workplace chatter.
When court adjourned Wednesday, the third day of jury selection at the Glynn County courthouse, a total of 15 prospective jurors had been deemed qualified to advance to the group from which a final jury will be chosen. Dozens more will be needed before the murder trial of defendants Greg and Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan gets underway.
Jury selection is essentially a process of elimination. In Georgia, court clerks use lists of licensed drivers and registered voters to randomly send jury duty notices. In this case, notices were mailed to 1,000 people. Ultimately, the court needs only 16 — a main jury of 12, plus four alternates in case any jurors get sick or are otherwise dismissed before the trial ends.
People can be excused automatically if they’re 70 or older, full-time caregivers of young children or full-time students. The judge can dismiss others for hardships such as illness or disability or the need to care for an ailing relative or to run a business with a shortage of workers.
Attorneys may also persuade the judge to dismiss pool members whose answers to questions indicate they’ve formed opinions about the case that could prevent them from rendering a fair verdict.
HOW DOES THE PROCESS WORK IN THIS CASE?
Potential jurors are being questioned in three phases. Jury duty notices included a three-page questionnaire to be filled out before coming to court. People were asked what they already know about the case, which news sources or social media platforms they use and whether they have seen the cellphone video of the shooting.
The first 600 prospective jurors are being summoned to the courthouse in groups of 20, with the remainder on deck for next week if needed. Prosecutors and defense lawyers first question them in groups, asking for a show of hands to answer yes-or-no questions such as whether anyone knows the three men on trial or already has negative impressions of them.
After that, jury pool members are being brought into court one at time for more probing questions. How many times have they watched the video? Do they feel racism was a motivating factor? The attorneys want to find out who has fixed opinions on the case.
One man Wednesday acknowledged writing on his questionnaire: “Guilty. They killed him.” He told the lawyers and judge he was referring to “all three of them. They did it as a team.” The judge dismissed the man after defense attorneys reported seeing him give a thumbs-up to Arbery’s father in the courtroom gallery.
IS SOMEONE DISQUALIFIED IF THEY ALREADY KNOW ABOUT THE CASE?
No. As one potential juror told the lawyers, almost everyone in Glynn County knows something about the killing.
Prospective jurors can be qualified to serve if they are deemed capable of weighing the courtroom evidence fairly, despite what they’ve already read or heard. Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley has been fairly lenient in that regard.
Two panelists who said their fathers were friends of either Greg McMichael or Bryan were allowed to remain in the jury pool. Another was deemed qualified after saying he had actively researched the case using Google and concluded: “Someone was murdered. That’s all I know.”
There’s no question Travis McMichael shot Arbery three times with a shotgun. The key issue is whether the shooting amounted to murder. Defense attorneys contend the defendants legally pursued Arbery because they suspected he was a criminal, and that the shooting was in self-defense.
WHY WASN’T THE CASE MOVED BECAUSE OF PRETRIAL PUBLICITY?
The intense pretrial publicity about Arbery’s slaying would likely qualify the trial to be moved to another Georgia county. But defense lawyers have said they prefer to try the case in Glynn County, where all three residents are longtime residents and are not known solely for Arbery’s death.
If defense attorneys don’t like the way the jury pool is shaping up, they could still ask the judge to move the case.
HOW DOES THE COURT ARRIVE AT A FINAL JURY?
Before a final jury is seated, attorneys get to take turns eliminating a significant number of prospective jurors from the final pool, for virtually any reason. There is one major exception — the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that it’s unconstitutional to cut potential jurors solely based on race.
“You’re trying to get rid of the people you think would be worst for your case, either because of their background or opinions,” said Page Pate, a Brunswick defense attorney who’s not involved in the case.
So far, the judge has granted 12 such peremptory challenges, or strikes, to prosecutors and 24 total to defense attorneys. He will likely grant additional strikes for choosing the four alternate jurors.
Mathematically, that means 60 or more qualified jury pool members will probably be needed for attorneys to exercise their strikes and still have enough people left to form the final jury.