As Murder Trial Begins in Ahmaud Arbery’s Killing, Family Worries About Impartiality of Jurors
"We go to Brunswick, Georgia, for an update as jury selection began this week in the trial of three white men who fatally shot 25-year-old unarmed man Ahmaud Arbery while he was out for a jog last year. Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael claim they were attempting a “citizen’s arrest” of Arbery last February when they pursued him in their pickup truck. Their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the pursuit in his own truck and recorded a cellphone video that would later be released as evidence and spark nationwide outcry. Travis McMichael fired two shots, killing Arbery. Theawanza Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery’s aunt, remembers Arbery as “an amazing young man … they took away from us,” and discusses ongoing protests outside the courthouse and racial dynamics in the case. “It’s impossible to find anyone in that small community who has not heard about what happened to Ahmaud,” adds Lee Merritt, civil rights attorney representing the Arbery family, who also addresses key aspects of the defense’s argument, including the citizen arrest law the McMichaels used as an excuse to stop Arbery.
AMY GOODMAN: In Georgia, jury selection began this week in the trial of three white men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, the unarmed 25-year-old Black man who was chased down and shot to death while out for a jog last year in the suburbs of Brunswick, Georgia. Many have compared his death to a modern-day lynching.
A warning to our viewers and listeners: This segment contains graphic descriptions of violence.
On February 23rd, 2020, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael saw Arbery jogging, grabbed guns and pursued him in a pickup truck. Their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the pursuit in his own truck, recording the video on a cellphone. The McMichaels claim they were attempting a citizen’s arrest of Ahmaud Arbery. Travis McMichael fired two shots, killing Ahmaud.
The elder McMichael was a former Glynn County police officer and investigator for the Brunswick judicial circuit prosecutor Jackie Johnson. She was recently indicted for directing police not to arrest Travis McMichael and then steering the case to a sympathetic prosecutor. It was a third prosecutor who ultimately filed the murder charges in the case, after the video evidence became public, sparking widespread outcry.
We’re joined now by two guests. Lee Merritt is a civil rights attorney representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery, and Thea Brooks is the aunt of Ahmaud Arbery. She’s been leading rallies outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Georgia since Monday.
I want to thank you so much, Thea Brooks, for being with us. Our deep condolences on the death of your nephew. I know he lived with you at the end of his life. And you’ve been monitoring closely what’s happening this week in the courtroom. Can you talk about the kind of community support? People have come all over the country to Brunswick to see what’s happening in the courtroom.
THEAWANZA BROOKS: Well, first, let me clear up: He never lived with me. I heard you say that he lived with me, but he never lived with me, so I’m not sure where that came from.
AMY GOODMAN: Sorry.
THEAWANZA BROOKS: But the support that has come to Brunswick has been amazing. People have rallied from all over the world to come and support and help be the eyes and ears to help focus on what’s going on at hand and to help support us and push us through to get justice for Ahmaud.
AMY GOODMAN: So, I was wondering if you can talk about that level of support and what it means. I was just reading a story about how the judge was responding to the defense attorneys demanding that all the signs be taken down outside, the judge noting the courthouse grounds are a public space. He suggested the objecting defense attorneys draft a legal motion, quote, “walking me through the First Amendment rights you seek to infringe upon and how you intend to do this,” he said. Can you tell us about the scene outside and the signs people are carrying, the T-shirts people are wearing, and why this, you feel, has captured the attention of so many?
THEAWANZA BROOKS: Well, the signs outside the courthouse are just really what they are. There’s signs that say “Justice for Ahmaud.” There’s signs that say “Find these men who killed Ahmaud guilty.” And there’s support signs. You see this so many other places. You saw it in Minneapolis. You saw it when Philando Castile was killed. You’ve seen it so many places. So I’m not understanding what the issue is here in Brunswick, Georgia.
But I do understand that we face a lot of injustices here, and this is just another part of the injustices that we face. The signs are support. I don’t see what the issue is. And these people came from Washington, Pennsylvania, Virginia, all over the world, just to be here in support. So, you know, when they file these type of motions, it just makes me question our judicial system and the things that we’re still facing today.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you tell us about Ahmaud? Tell us who he was. Describe this young man who was cut down in the prime of his life.
THEAWANZA BROOKS: Well, Ahmaud and I spent a lot of time together in his younger years, his infant, toddler years. As he got older, his mom, she moved to another part of Brunswick, and we kind of lost connection. A couple of months before Ahmaud was killed, we spent a lot of time together out at his house. His mom was working out in Texas.
And so, we never missed a beat. If I ran into him on his jog, if I saw him out at Blue Beacon, where he was working, he was still a bright young man. He had a beautiful smile. He was amazing. He always offered. He was a giver. He would see me and say, “Can I buy you lunch?” or, you know, “Do you have money? If not, I can give.” And I would always tell him, “You know, you keep your money, and I’ll buy lunch.”
But he was just such an amazing young man. He was bright. He had a bright future. He had a dream. He loved to rap. He loved to spend time with his cousins, who were like his brothers. He loved his brother and sister. But, most of all, he loved his mom. His mom was everything to him. She was a jewel in his eyesight. And he was just an amazing young man.
And that was something that they took away from us, you know? You don’t find many times where you can say that the younger people now that are coming up are just these remarkable people. And no matter what they do in their past, they’re still a great people. And Ahmaud was loved. And that’s all I can really say about him. He was loved. He was that child that everybody would want.
AMY GOODMAN: We also have Lee Merritt with us, attorney for the family of Ahmaud Arbery. Lee, this story is not often talked about as a story about law enforcement. They talk about three white men, right? The McMichaels, father and son team, and Roddie Bryan. But, in fact, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, who got in that pickup truck and hunted down Ahmaud and ultimately killed him, the elder McMichael was a former Glynn County police officer and investigator for the Brunswick judicial circuit prosecutor Jackie Johnson. And she was recently indicted for directing police not to arrest the son and then steering the case to a sympathetic prosecutor. Can you take us through this prosecution, Lee Merritt?
LEE MERRITT: Yes. The — when you say take you through the prosecution, you want —
AMY GOODMAN: Yes, I mean, talk about the connection to law enforcement and how long this took, actually, to bring charges and the final release of that video, amazingly, by the third man who’s been arrested here.
LEE MERRITT: Sure. So, in February of 2020, this all happened. It took 74 days before anyone was arrested. And that was only after one of the defendants decided that this video would help clear up some of the rumors that were going on about how Ahmaud was murdered. And so he released it — under the direction of his attorney, he released it to a local radio station. By then, Wanda had been contacting the then-appointed prosecutor in the case — which, by the time that happened, we were on our third prosecutor — to get the case before a grand jury to arrest these men. And when the video was released, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation got involved because of the national outcry. It went almost immediately viral. And then the dominoes began to fall.
AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that Gregory McMichael was in law enforcement, was a police officer, was an investigator —
LEE MERRITT: Yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: — and then that connection to Jackie Johnson, who herself, this Brunswick judicial circuit prosecutor, has just been charged.
LEE MERRITT: So, Greg McMichael worked in law enforcement in Glynn County for decades. His most recent job, that he had just retired from the year previously, was an investigator for Jackie Johnson, the then-Glynn County prosecutor. Right after Ahmaud was murdered, before he actually received medical care, Gregory McMichael was on the phone with his old boss saying that he needed help.
Now, it was Jackie Johnson’s responsibility at that point to conflict out of the case, to let the attorney general of the state know that there was a murder that took place in her region and she didn’t have the jurisdiction because of her conflict to deal with it. Instead, she moved the prosecution, as you mentioned, to a sympathetic prosecutor, George Barnhill, and she continued to sort of put her thumbs on the scale of justice. She let law enforcement know these men should not be arrested. She instructed them not to arrest the McMichaels.
And ever since then — you know, that community is so small. We’re learning how small it is from the jury selection process. But that community, it’s — George Barnhill, for example, his son also worked for Jackie Johnson. And there was a lot of inappropriate relationships that were allowed to continue despite the obvious conflicts.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about this citizen arrest law that the McMichaels used as an excuse to stop Ahmaud, which has been repealed by Georgia state lawmakers? How does that change the defense?
LEE MERRITT: Yeah, so, the citizen’s arrest law, which is an old civil rights-era law on the books, that ultimately was designed to keep Black people out of traditionally white neighborhoods. And that’s how it had been used. In order to successfully avail themselves of even that law, they would have to first prove that they witnessed Ahmaud during the course of a crime, a felony, or that he committed a crime or felony within their immediate knowledge.
Here, they said that they saw Ahmaud running and had a gut instinct that he may have been involved in some other car — taking items out of a car. I’m not sure the exact criminal statute for that, but taking items out of a car. That would not suffice under the law. It is the defense that they’re still fighting for. And of note, the people of Georgia elected to remove that defense from the books. It is still available for the McMichaels and Mr. Bryan for his defense, but, ultimately, that law is no longer available.
AMY GOODMAN: Thea Brooks, can you talk about how often you, how often Ahmaud was in that neighborhood of Brunswick? And can you talk about the description of the community and the division between white and Black, kind of informal segregation?
THEAWANZA BROOKS: Well, Ahmaud not only jogged in that community, Ahmaud jogged all over Glynn County. That was his thing. He spent a lot of time. Well, he jogged a lot out that way because that’s where he lived. He ultimately was, like, literally — if he would have been able to get out of the neighborhood on the road that he was jogging on, to escape those gentlemen, all he had to do was literally jog across the highway, and he would have been in his neighborhood. So, I found it — at one point, I thought it would be safer when he was jogging out there through the neighborhoods, because the main highway that leads to his route is a very busy highway. It’s considered Highway 17, which we call 82 here. There are a lot of tractor-trailers that drive out there. There is actually a truck stop out there. So it’s a very busy highway that leads to Interstate 95. So, you would think that jogging in the neighborhoods would be a safer place to jog because of the traffic and how heavy the traffic is out there. So, Ahmaud’s jog was a daily jog, unless it was pouring down rain and he just couldn’t get out. But he ran every day.
And so, ultimately, you’re talking about what we experience here. There’s a lot of injustice that happens here in Glynn County. We’ve seen it in many other cases, not just Ahmaud’s case. This community is somewhat in some ways — there are areas still that, just like Ahmaud’s situation, that we go and we get questioned for being in the neighborhoods, because it’s predominantly a white neighborhood or it’s an all-white neighborhood. And so, when we go into these neighborhoods, they do question it. I find myself sometimes running into it even on my job, because I’m the only person of color at my job. So, there are days where it’s questioned, you know, about me even being here. So we deal with it on a regular basis. It’s nothing that just started, but it’s something now that people are paying attention to.
AMY GOODMAN: The running community, Thea, has come out in support of Ahmaud — tons of “Run for Ahmaud” T-shirts and signs.
THEAWANZA BROOKS: Yes. That’s actually happening all over the world. When Ahmaud was killed, once the video dropped, you saw signs, you saw T-shirts. There are signs in yards, people wearing shirts every day. They’ve even — this week, a lot of people have turned their photos on their Facebook, their profile photos, to pictures of Ahmaud in support of the “I run with Maud.” So, there is no longer a campaign called “I Run with Maud.” That has been — it’s gone, no 2.23 Foundation. So, people now are just predominantly individually continuing to run for Maud on their own.
AMY GOODMAN: So, Lee Merritt, can you talk about how jury selection is going, what you see here? And you’ve got the new hate crime laws that have been passed by the Georgia state Legislature. What role will this play in the trial?
LEE MERRITT: The jury selection process in Glynn County is going to be difficult. It’s always a challenge to find neutral jurors. But in a place like Glynn County, for one of the most high-profile cases in the history of Georgia, if not of the country, it’s impossible to find anyone in that small community who has not heard about what happened to Ahmaud. The prosecutors and the defense, the judge, as well, they’ve kind of accepted this as reality, that they’re going to be dealing with jurors who are not blank slates like we prefer. The jurors that have come in, however, many of them went to school with the accused.
At least one of the jurors, who, to my surprise, was actually qualified to sit on the jury, works in the office of Jackie Johnson, works in the Glynn County Prosecutor Office, was hired by Jackie Johnson, campaigned for Jackie Johnson after the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, and knows Greg McMichael personally. In court, she referred to him sort of casually as Greg. And the court said that somebody with that many connections, whose job it was — she was basically the custodian of the records, which means a lot of the evidence that we’re reviewing in court was signed by her. And the court said, despite the fact that she could be called as a witness, that she was qualified to sit on the jury. I’m sure the prosecution will use a peremptory strike later on down the line to remove her from the jury, but the fact that she wasn’t disqualified for what is called cause is beyond me.
So far, they’ve been able to get together 23 qualified jurors of over 600 subpoenas that were sent out, or jury summons that were sent out. Of those 23, the number that they’re — the magic number they’re trying to get to is 64. And then the jury selection process actually begins, where the prosecution and defense can begin selecting and striking jurors.
AMY GOODMAN: So, with the video documenting that the McMichaels used the N-word after killing Ahmaud, how do you see race playing in this?
LEE MERRITT: Well, the video does not document that the McMichaels used the N-word. The documentarian, one of the defendants, William “Roddie” Bryan, in his attempt to disassociate with the McMichaels, he offered into evidence, during the preliminary trials, that the McMichaels used the N-word. Race is going to be a central theme in this case because the prosecution — and I believe rightfully so — has acknowledged that race is at the center of these men’s actions.
They’re going to claim, of course, that they targeted Ahmaud because they suspected him of crimes, specifically of going into that open dwelling. What you’ll also hear from them, and what we’ve seen already, is that many, many people are seen on camera going into the open dwelling. That was not —
AMY GOODMAN: You mean a house that was being built.
LEE MERRITT: That’s correct, the house that was still under construction. Many people were seen on camera going into that dwelling. Ahmaud had been there more than once. He had never committed any crimes there. He was the only person criminalized for his place, for just being on the premises. And we believe — and the evidence, we believe, will show — that he was targeted because of his race, and that these men were deeply racist. And there are social media posts and text messages that center around the issue of race. And even after Ahmaud was killed, some of the banter that we see on social media between the McMichaels and the community was celebratory concerning the fact that they had killed a Black man in that community.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us, Lee Merritt, attorney for the family of Ahmaud Arbery, and thank you so much to Thea Brooks, aunt of Ahmaud Arbery. And again, our deepest condolences.
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