The judge is from Savannah, the prosecution is from Atlanta and only one of the half dozen defense lawyers is local in the nationally spotlighted murder trial that begins Monday at the Glynn County Courthouse.
Yet, in the end, the fate of three White men accused of murder in the killing of a 25-year-old Black man will rest with Glynn County residents. That is, unless a change of venue is sought in the murder trial for defendants Travis McMichael, Gregory McMichael and William Bryan.
To better ensure that an impartial jury can be empaneled locally, the Glynn County Clerk of Court office, mailed jury duty notices for the trial to 1,000 residents — roughly six times the size of jury pooling for a criminal trial under normal circumstances. Because of the highly-publicized nature of the trial tied to the February 2020 shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, the clerk’s office expanded the pool of potential jurors.
Superior Court Clerk Ron Adams said the size and scope of the jury pool is unlike any he’s encountered in his nearly five years as the clerk of Superior Court. The selection process could take up to 2 1/2 weeks, Adams said, but he is confident that the preparations the court staff has taken will produce an acceptable jury.
“For a jury panel we would normally summon 150 people, maybe 180,” Adams said. “This is not a normal circumstance. It is a very documented, management-intensive process. But we want to do this once and we want to do this right.”
Out-of-town network news crews are already gathering near the courthouse for the trial, which will attract national attention to this coastal community of 85,000 when it gets under way Monday with jury selection.
At issue is the killing of Arbery and the three men who stand accused of murder.
Travis McMichael shot the unarmed Arbery three times at close range with a 12-gauge shotgun loaded with buckshot on a public street in Satilla Shores on Feb. 23, 2020. The incident had begun moments earlier when Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck after he ran past their residence on Satilla Drive. Bryan joined the pursuit in his own pickup truck after seeing Arbery run past his home on Burford Road with the two McMichaels in pursuit.
Bryan used his cell phone to record the deadly conclusion as Travis McMichael and Arbery struggled for possession of Travis McMichael’s gun. Arbery fell to the street, mortally wounded. The video sparked national outrage when it went viral online in early May 2020, just days before the Georgia Bureau of Investigation moved in to arrest the McMichaels. GBI agents arrested Bryan later that month.
Defense attorneys will contend Travis McMichael acted in self-defense while the three defendants were attempting a citizen’s arrest. The McMichaels said they suspected Arbery of burglarizing a nearby house that under construction.
The prosecution argues Arbery was an avid jogger out for a run and was murdered in cold blood.
Arbery and the three defendants all are natives of the area; Arbery lived with his mother in the Fancy Bluff community, just a couple of miles from Satilla Shores in southern Glynn County.
Finding a local resident who does not have strong opinions about the case will be difficult, legal experts say. Likewise, it is probable that potential jurors know one of the defendants or knew Arbery, who was a standout linebacker when he attended Brunswick High School.
It’s the reason for the extraordinary steps taken to find a jury of 12 local peers and four alternates.
Potential jurors will be required to fill out a special three-page questionnaire. Questions include a person’s knowledge of the case, social media habits and thoughts on race relations.
“And that is in addition to the standard initial questionnaire that all jurors receive,” Adams said.
Potential jurors will report Monday morning in waves of dozens to the Selden Park Gymnasium on U.S. 341. The spacious gym was chosen as a suitable place to begin the jury selection process while observing COVID-19-induced social distancing.
The first 200 called in the jury pool are to report to the gymnasium before 9 a.m. Monday, according to the clerk of court trial schedule.
In reality, Adams said he does not expect most of the individuals called to appear Monday. He said he expects at least 75 to show up.
From those who arrive Monday morning, 20 will be called and ordered to report to the courthouse, several miles away, by 1 p.m. There the jury selection process will begin with questioning from defense and prosecuting attorneys.
Six hundred potential jurors have been summoned to report to Selden Park Monday.
The selection process will proceed through the first week and will go through the first 600 called, Adams said.
On Oct. 25, another 400 prospective jurors who were summoned will report to Selden Park, from which pools of 20 each will report to the courthouse for questioning throughout the week.
Eastern Judicial Circuit Judge Timothy Walmsley of Chatham County is presiding over the case. He was assigned to the case when local Superior Court judges recused themselves.
The case is being prosecuted by the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, which was assigned the case by Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr shortly after the three defendants were arrested. Cobb Senior Assistant DA Linda Dunikoski has led the prosecution through pre-trial hearings.
Jackie Johnson, Brunswick Judicial Circuit DA at the time, had recused herself. Gregory McMichael served as chief investigator for her office until his retirement in 2020.
Travis McMichael, 35, is represented by Robert Rubin and Jason Sheffield of Decatur. Gregory McMichael, 65, is represented by Frank and Laura Hogue of Macon. Bryan, 52, is being represented by Brunswick attorney Kevin Gough. Gough will be assisted by Jessica Burton of Atlanta.
The three men also are charged with federal hate crimes, including interference with Arbery’s rights and attempted kidnapping. That trial is set to begin Feb. 7, 2022, with jury selection in U.S. District Court in Brunswick.