No. 218 joined a bike ride supporting Ahmaud Arbery’s family after the young Black man was chased down and shot dead. No. 236 was a longtime co-worker of one of the white men charged in the killing.
Identified in court only by numbers, both people were summoned to jury duty in the trial over Arbery’s slaying. And after attorneys questioned them extensively about the case, the judge deemed both to be fair-minded enough to remain in the pool from which a final jury will be picked.
An outcry over the February 2020 slaying of 25-year-old Arbery echoed across the U.S. after graphic cellphone video of the shooting leaked online two months later. With jury selection underway in the Georgia community of 85,000 where the killing took place, it seems increasingly likely that some of the jurors who are ultimately chosen will have preconceived opinions and personal ties to the case.
The judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys have questioned 71 pool members since jury selection began Monday. After dismissing those with personal hardships or unshakable biases, 23 were deemed qualified to advance. Dozens more will be needed before a final jury of 12 plus four alternates can be seated.
While questioning potential jurors, prosecutor Linda Dunikoski often told them the ideal juror would be a “blank slate.” In the trial over Arbery’s killing, she noted, that is probably impossible.
“We can’t get that because it’s been all over the place,” Dunikoski remarked in court Thursday.
The result has been a number of potential jurors kept in the pool despite coming to the courthouse already knowing a lot about what happened and the people involved. That’s because they said they can decide the case fairly, based only on the trial evidence.
Georgia law allows someone to serve on a jury even if they come to court with an opinion about the case, as long as that person expresses a willingness to keep an open mind, said Donnie Dixon, a Savannah defense attorney and former federal prosecutor.
“The operative question is: Is your opinion so fixed that you couldn’t get a fair trial?” said Dixon, who’s not involved in the case. “The reality is, who knows? But if they say those magic words, the judge may not disqualify them.”
Greg and Travis McMichael, a father and grown son, armed themselves and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.
Greg McMichael, who had recently retired after a long career as an investigator for the area district attorney, told police Arbery had previously been recorded by security cameras inside a neighboring house under construction and they suspected he had been stealing. He said Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense after Arbery attacked him.
Until now, the case has been driven by outsiders. The McMichaels and Bryan were not charged until the Georgia Bureau of Investigation took over the case from local police. Greg McMichael’s ties to the district attorney resulted in the appointment of outside prosecutors from metro Atlanta. Likewise, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley from Savannah was assigned to preside.
If a jury gets seated in Glynn County, where 1,000 jury duty notices were mailed, the case will ultimately be decided by people for whom the slaying hit much closer to home.
If enough people summoned to the court house keep expressing strong opinions, defense attorneys could ask the judge to halt jury selection and move the case to a different Georgia county.
“It’s the easiest time to get a change of venue,” said Don Samuel, an Atlanta defense attorney who is not involved in the case. “If half the people who are randomly picked are so biased they can’t even sit as jurors, you’re talking about a community that’s saturated by pretrial publicity.”