Jury selection began this week in Brunswick, Georgia, in the trial of three white men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was shot and killed while jogging near his home in Brunswick, Georgia, on February 23, 2020.
Gregory McMichael, a former police officer, and his son, Travis McMichael, armed themselves with a handgun and shotgun and, along with their neighbor, William Bryan, chased Mr. Arbery in their pickup trucks. Travis McMichael got out of the truck with the shotgun, and after a struggle over the gun, he fired three shots, killing Mr. Arbery, who was not armed.
Local prosecutors declined to arrest the men for weeks, until the release of cellphone video of the shooting, recorded by Mr. Bryan, brought national attention to the case.
The three defendants have pleaded not guilty to charges of murder, aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to commit false imprisonment. They were also indicted on federal hate crime charges earlier this year.
The defense will argue that the McMichaels were exercising their right to make a citizen’s arrest under a Civil War-era statute that Georgia lawmakers significantly weakened earlier this year. Travis McMichael’s attorney said he is also claiming that he shot Mr. Arbery in self-defense.
Jurors Questioned About Race
Most of Brunswick’s 16,000 residents are Black, but the small coastal city is located in Glynn County, which is overwhelmingly white.
The Glynn County Superior Court summoned 1,000 potential jurors—far more than the 150 people the court would usually call for a criminal trial. The court has not identified the race of the prospective jurors. Court officials told The Washington Post that the large number reflects the difficulties of finding impartial jurors for such a high-profile case.
But at a hearing before the questioning of potential jurors began on Monday morning, the defense proposed 30 questions in addition to queries about jurors’ exposure to pretrial publicity—many of which pertain to jurors’ thoughts and experience related to race, ABC News reported. Legal experts have raised concerns that the defense will try to exclude potential jurors based on race.
The prosecution objected to more than half of the defense questions as too broad or unrelated to the evidence, including whether prospective jurors participated in any social justice demonstrations before or after Mr. Arbery’s death and whether jurors believed the case was important in revealing racism in the community.
The lead prosecutor objected to proposed questions about jurors’ support for the Black Lives Matter movement and whether they believe anyone who opposes it is racist, arguing that it “has absolutely nothing to do with this particular case.”
The judge allowed questioning about the racial justice movement, the justice system’s fairness to Black and white people, and whether the Confederate flag is racist.
A Long History of Discriminatory Jury Selection
Concerns that questions about racial injustice will be used to bar Black people from serving on this jury are rooted in our nation’s long history of excluding Black people from jury service.
Throughout our country’s history, perpetrators of racial violence, terrorism, and exploitation of disfavored groups have escaped accountability because their criminal behavior has been ignored by all-white juries.
The exclusion of Black jurors has also allowed for the murder, rape, assault, and economic exploitation of Black women and men, because all-white juries have refused to hold the perpetrators accountable.
EJI has documented nearly 6,500 racial terror lynchings in America between 1865 and 1950. Racially motivated massacres and public spectacle lynchings were widespread, with thousands of white people participating in public acts of torture.
Perpetrators of terror—who included community leaders, elected officials, and law enforcement officers—committed brutal acts of violence in broad daylight, with no fear of prosecution or conviction in an all-white legal system.
People of color are still significantly underrepresented in the legal system today. More than 40% of Americans are people of color, but almost all of our nation’s judges and prosecutors are white. The absence of Black representation in these positions of power means that decisions about who to arrest, which crimes to prosecute, and how to punish people are made primarily by individuals who have less experience contending with racial bias.
Representative juries are indispensable to reliable, fair, and accurate trials.
Racially representative juries engage in a more thoughtful and deliberative fact-finding process. Studies have found that they consider more factual information, are more likely to discuss missing evidence, and are more willing to discuss issues that are often overlooked by all-white juries, like racial profiling.
Illegal racial discrimination in jury selection undermines the integrity of the entire legal system, but the tactic of asking questions about race to elicit responses that can be used to remove Black jurors is one of many ways that Black people continue to be illegally excluded from jury service today.
Judges get to decide if a juror cannot be fair and impartial, and lawyers often ask judges to remove jurors if they acknowledge having been victimized by racial bias, experiencing racial discrimination, or having concerns about the reliability of the criminal legal system are often excluded. As a result, Black jurors are disproportionately removed “for cause.”