BRUNSWICK, Ga. - A judge ruled Wednesday that he’ll seat one Black juror and 11 whites to decide the trial of the men who chased and killed Ahmaud Arbery, despite prosecutors’ objections that several Black potential jurors were cut because of their race.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley acknowledged that "intentional discrimination" by attorneys for the three white defendants charged in the death of the Black man appeared to have shaped jury selection. But he said Georgia law limited his authority to intervene.
Race is a central issue in the case involving the death of Arbery. Greg McMichael and his adult son, Travis McMichael, armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck on Feb. 23, 2020, after they spotted the 25-year-old man running in their neighborhood in coastal Georgia. A neighbor, William "Roddie" Bryan," joined the chase in his own truck and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times with a shotgun.
A long, sometimes heated debate over the racial makeup of the final jury erupted in court Wednesday afternoon as lawyers wrapped up a jury selection process lasting more than two weeks.
Arbery’s death became part of the broader reckoning on racial injustice in the criminal legal system after a string of fatal encounters between Black people and police — George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks, among others.
Gregory McMichael (left), his son Travis McMichael and William Bryan (right).
Minutes after the attorneys had finished narrowing a panel of 48 to a final jury of 12 on Wednesday, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski noted only a single Black juror made the panel.
She argued that defense lawyers had struck eight Black potential jurors because of their race. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that it is unconstitutional for attorneys during jury selection to strike potential jurors solely based on race or ethnicity.
Laura Hogue, an attorney for Greg McMichael, insisted those jury panelists were cut for other reasons — namely for expressing strong opinions about the case when questioned individually by attorneys.
"I can give you a race-neutral reason for any one of these," Hogue said.
She noted one such juror had written on her juror questionnaire that Arbery was shot "due to his color" and had told attorneys she felt the defendants were guilty.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley denied prosecutors’ request to reinstate those eight Black potential jurors, though he said: "This court has found there appears to be intentional discrimination in the panel."
The judge said his ability to change the jury’s racial makeup was limited because defense attorneys were able to give nonracial reasons for their decisions to strike the potential Black jurors.
"They have been able to explain to the court why besides race those individuals were struck from the panel," Walmsley said.
The judge said the jury, along with four alternates, will be seated and sworn in Friday, when opening statements in the trial are expected. He did not give the races of the alternate jurors.
Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, told reporters outside the courthouse she found it "devastating" that only one Black juror will be seated. Still, she said of the final jury: "I’m very confident that they’ll make the right decision after seeing all the evidence."
Her attorney, S. Lee Merritt, said he still believes the trial will end in a conviction, though defense lawyers had "created a jury that was more favorable for their defendants, an almost entirely white jury."
Dunikoski noted that many prospective jurors questioned in open court expressed strong opinions about the case, but all who remained in the pool from which the 12 jurors emerged said they could be impartial and base a verdict solely on the trial evidence.
In Glynn County, where Arbery was killed and the trial is being held, Black people account for nearly 27% of the population of 85,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The judge said 25% of the pool from which the final jury was chosen was Black.
Defense attorneys say the McMichaels and Bryan committed no crimes. They say Arbery had been recorded by security cameras inside a nearby house and they suspected him of stealing. Greg McMichael told police his son opened fire in self-defense after Arbery attacked with his fists and grappled for Travis McMichael’s shotgun.
Investigators have said Arbery was unarmed and there’s no evidence he had stolen anything.
What's known about Ahmaud Arbery's death
A police report from the Glynn County Police Department says a man and his son, frustrated by a string of burglaries and break-ins in their neighborhood, decided to take matters in their own hands.
The men saw Arbery running through the Satilla Shores subdivision and considered him suspicious, a report says. They armed themselves and pursued him. Gregory McMichael, who it was later discovered has ties to the Glynn County District Attorney's Office, told police that Arbery and Travis fought over his son’s shotgun and his son fired two shots, killing Arbery.
Information that unfolded after the incident revealed Arbery was unarmed.
It was later discovered a man named William "Roddie" Bryan allegedly joined the chase and eventually cut off Arbery's route before he was shot and killed.
No one was arrested or charged for months after the shooting occurred.
Suspects: Gregory and Travis McMichael, William "Roddie" Bryan
Greg McMichael is a retired investigator for former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson. He retired in 2019. Phone records introduced in court show he called Johnson and left her a voicemail after the shooting. Johnson said she recused her office from the case immediately because of its relationship with Greg McMichael.
The McMichaels’ attorneys' offered the explanation that their clients pursued Arbery because they suspected he was a burglar.
Security cameras had previously recorded Arbery entering a home under construction.
Attorneys for Travis McMichael shot Arbery while fearing for his life as they grappled over a shotgun.
Greg and Travis McMichael were arrested in May 2020, several months after the shooting took place after a GBI investigation concluded there was evidence for charges against them.
William "Roddie" Bryan followed the chase and recorded a video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery. Bryan was arrested weeks after the McMichaels.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.