Dozens of potential jurors will return to a Brunswick, Georgia, courthouse Monday to see if they’ll be impaneled to hear the federal hate crimes trial against the men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery.
The judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys spent last week questioning potential jurors, exploring their views on race in hopes of seating an impartial jury for the trial, set to begin Monday. Some said they had made up their minds about the defendants’ guilt, while others expressed doubt that racism was a problem in America today, or said it was exaggerated by the media.
“I don’t think it is as bad as the media says it is,” one juror said Wednesday when asked about his questionnaire, on which he indicated racism used to be a problem but no longer was. The juror had worked alongside Black people, he said, adding, “It was beat into my head that everyone was the same.”
The federal trial is distinct from the state trial, in which a jury of 11 White people and one Black person found Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., guilty of Arbery’s murder. Each was sentenced to life in prison.
But the allegation that Arbery’s murder nearly two years ago was racially motivated is central to federal prosecutors’ case, in which the defendants each face a charge of interference with rights, a hate crime, and an attempted kidnapping count. The McMichaels each face a weapons charge as well. Both McMichaels and Bryan have pleaded not guilty.
With that in mind, prosecutors need jurors to be open to two ideas, Page Pate, a criminal defense attorney in Brunswick, told CNN: First, that there should even be a hate crimes case to begin with. And second, that race could have been a motivating cause of Arbery’s death.
“If you get people from this jury, on the prosecution side, who are skeptical that this is even a crime, then you’re going to have a doubly difficult job of convincing them that race was the motivating factor for the death,” Pate said. “They’re going to be hostile to the case from the beginning.”
But making that case “can be very difficult depending upon who’s on the jury,” he said.
Jurors expressed confusion and skepticism over federal trial
Jury selection began with 1,000 potential jurors, US District Court Judge Lisa Wood said Friday. Expanding the pool of jurors, summoned from 43 counties that make up the US Southern District of Georgia, helped expedite the process, she said.
After a week of whittling down the jury pool, 64 potential jurors will return Monday to be questioned further. Then 36 jurors will be randomly selected by drawing numbers, before both sides have the chance to dismiss jurors without needing a cause. Opening statements will begin after the pool is narrowed to a panel of 12 jurors and four alternates.
Arbery’s killing and the video that captured it sparked widespread outrage and protests – harbingers of demonstrations in the summer of 2020 that followed the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Many potential jurors questioned this week said they already knew about the case, and some indicated their minds were made up about the defendants. Of 16 potential jurors questioned Tuesday afternoon, for example, 10 were dismissed because they indicated they already believed the McMichaels and Bryan were guilty.
There was also confusion from some potential jurors about why there was another trial at all. One juror was excused Tuesday morning after saying it didn’t make sense that a second trial was being held when the defendants had already been found guilty.
Meantime, some prospective jurors appeared to be skeptical of the prevalence of hate crimes and the need for hate crime laws. One, who described himself Tuesday as a White man from the South, said he believed hate crimes were no longer an issue and were exaggerated in the media. Another indicated he wrote on his jury form that “hate is a subjective term,” adding, “a crime is a crime.”
Others echoed the idea that problems related to race are blown out of proportion by the media, even if they believed it is a problem. One pointed to the police killing of George Floyd, saying, “The media kept revving it up, causing more unrest.”
“We have evolved into a culture of equality,” the juror added.
Federal prosecutors will “have to confront race head on” in their case, said Pate. “In fact, they have to use race from the beginning until the end of their presentation of the case.”
Prosecutors will look to strike jurors who they believe can’t be open to the idea that race was a motivating factor in Arbery’s death, he said. As for the defense, Pate said, attorneys are likely looking for as many conservative jurors from the rural parts of Georgia’s southern district and those who, “in response to questioning, don’t suggest that they see race as a problem.”
Both sides want to probe jurors’ beliefs as much as possible, Pate said. “But the reality is you’re never able to probe enough.”
Jurors’ views on race
One juror was excused Wednesday after indicating she believed Black people were often targeted and that the legal system is systematically unfair to African Americans. The next day, one conceded she thought negatively of the defendants and believed they were racist. The juror, who was excused, also indicated she had a negative impression of their defense attorneys in the state trial.
Another juror questioned Friday afternoon indicated on the questionnaire that racial profiling frequently occurs. The juror said he had not seen the video of Arbery’s killing and believed he could be a fair juror. The juror was slated to return Monday.
Ultimately, regardless of jurors’ views on race relations in the United States, they’re being tasked with determining the defendants’ guilt based on the facts of just this case, said CNN Legal Analyst Joey Jackson, a criminal defense attorney and former prosecutor.
Even if a juror believes, he said, that race isn’t a problem, if they’re shown evidence that the murder was racially motivated – like racially charged text messages unrelated to Arbery uncovered in the investigation, or Bryan’s allegation to police, per a state investigator, that he heard Travis utter a slur after shooting Arbery – their obligation is to find the defendants’ guilty. (Attorneys representing Travis McMichael in the state trial have suggested Bryan made up the slur.)
“It gives us lawyers a firm indication of who you are as a person,” Jackson said of jurors’ responses, “because what your decisions are are shaded by your realities, by your experiences, by your perspective, by your thoughts, your beliefs.”
To that end, some juror questioning occurred in private, behind closed doors, so jurors could feel comfortable sharing their true feelings on sensitive topics without risking embarrassment. That also helps both sides get to the “heart of the matter” of what that individual really thinks, Jackson said.
It’s not as simple as prosecutors looking for jurors of color and defense attorneys looking for White jurors, he added: “You have to listen to jurors and see what their experiences are,” Jackson said.
“White identification and Black identification and racial identification are big. People identify with their racial groups, right? That’s not a secret,” he said. “But I think in order to get the jury you want, you got to look beyond that, which is why you question jurors to their beliefs.”
CNN’s Kevin Conlon, Pamela Kirkland and Eliott McLaughlin contributed to this report.