BRUNSWICK, Ga. (WSAV) – Jury selection began Monday in the murder trial of three white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, as he was running in their neighborhood.
Arbery’s death sparked a national outcry fueled by graphic video of the shooting in the Satilla Shores subdivision.
Greg and Travis McMichael, father and son, and their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan are facing murder charges and other crimes connected to Arbery’s death on February 23, 2020.
Jury selection could last two weeks or more. There is a massive pool with 600 potential jurors in the first round and another 400 on standby. About 1-in-50 residents in the area were summoned in the case.
By the end of the jury selection proceedings, 12 jurors and four alternates will be picked to fill in for any jurors who get sick or are dismissed before the trial ends.
Before the selection process began Monday, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley first held a morning hearing to address legal issues that must be resolved before the trial starts.
While all eyes were on the courtroom in Brunswick, there was significant activity outside of the Glynn County Courthouse.
A crowd made up of activists, local clergy and spectators gathered to watch proceedings play out. Supporters said they will be around as long as it takes for justice to be served.
The case will be followed closely outside Georgia, too. Arbery’s killing stoked outrage in the summer of 2020 during a period of national protests over racial injustice.
“We’re all in this together,” said Chloresse Wright, who drove 45 minutes from her Hinesville home to be in Brunswick.
“A lot of things kind of start in the media and then it goes down,” Wright continued, “so I just want to support and show that Liberty County is here to support Glynn County.”
As observers work to support Arbery’s family, law enforcement is working to handle the influx of people. The Glynn County Sheriff’s Office set up an overflow lot in case crowds swell.
“Bottom line is that starting today is that this process moves thoroughly and that there’s no hiccups to make it stop,” said Glynn County Sheriff E. Neal Jump.
Even without hiccups, the process could be a long one for the Arbery family.
“They are focused on justice that’s what they’ve been praying for since this tragedy happened,” said attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the family.
Arbery’s father Marcus Arbery Sr. said he’s praying for an impartial panel and a fair trial, saying Black crime victims too often have been denied justice.
“Immediately after Ahmaud was killed, I had lots and lots of questions but no answers. It went 74 days without an arrest,” explained Wanda Cooper Jones, Arbery’s mother.
“But today I am very thankful we reached a stage in the case to pick a jury and possibly put these men behind bars,” she added.
Supporters are hopeful the video evidence will lead to a conviction but — because the defendants have local ties and a former district attorney is accused of going easy on them — for some, there are still doubts.
“There is that fear that there may be the connection, that friendship that they have that it may not come through (a conviction),” said Wright. “We’ve seen it in other communities and we are hoping that it just doesn’t happen here.”
In a town of just over 16,000 people, national attention like this doesn’t come around every day. But Brunswick has found itself at the heart of a racial reckoning, and it’s hitting close to home for many in the coastal community.
“I’ve actually got a buddy who got picked to be on the jury for it,” said Jacob Boyd, a Brunswick resident. “It’s kinda crazy that everyone kinda knows someone that’s connected to the trial and whatnot.”
Locals are already noticing the circumstances that come with a trial of this size: an increased police presence along with hoards of media attention.
“Now we’re gonna get put on the map. Hopefully, it’s for the better,” said Boyd. “I’ve definitely seen more of a presence of people here and I’m sure we’ll see more of an influx in the next few weeks here just because of how big this trial has gotten.”
Many hope Brunswick can be painted in a positive light and remembered for its resilience.
“There’s a lot more to this area than what these guys did to a young kid,” said Chris Gantt, owner of Reid’s Apothecary. “I think that this now is the time for us to shine and this is what we should be put on the map for — making justice right and serving justice the correct way.”
The first panel of 20 jurors was sworn in and questioned Monday afternoon.
Along with their jury summons, pool members were mailed a three-page questionnaire asking what they already know about the case and what news outlets or social media platforms were their main sources of information.
The form also asked whether prospective jurors posted any online comments about Arbery’s killing and if they visited the scene of the shooting or did other research into the case on their own.
Attorneys on both sides will spend the coming days questioning the jury pool, in groups and individually, to determine whether they have formed opinions about the case that render them incapable of serving.
Prosecutors say Arbery was merely jogging when the McMichaels armed themselves with guns and chased him in a pickup truck. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded the now-infamous cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.
Defense attorneys insist the three defendants committed no crimes. Greg McMichael told police they pursued Arbery suspecting he was a burglar after security cameras previously recorded him entering a nearby home under construction. He said Travis McMichael fired his gun in self-defense after Arbery punched him and tried to grab his weapon.
Investigators have testified that they found no evidence of crimes by Arbery, who was unarmed, in Satilla Shores.
The Associated Press contributed to this report