Jury selection is set to begin in the trial of three white men who are accused of chasing and fatally shooting 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, in the US state of Georgia in February 2020.
On Monday, hundreds of prospective jurors were set to descend on the court in Glynn County for the arduous process, which is expected to take as long as two weeks.
Prosecutors and the defence will wrangle over selecting 12 jurors and four alternates from the group, who they believe have remained impartial towards the incident that captured local and national outrage and helped spark racial justice protests that swept the US last year.
Prior to the proceedings on Monday, Arbery’s father called for accountability, saying it was “time for a change”.
“We need to be treated equally and get fair justice as human beings, because we’ve been treated wrong so long,” Marcus Arbery Sr told the Associated Press news agency.
Ahmaud Arbery was fatally shot on February 23, 2020, after father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and their neighbour William “Roddie” Bryan chased him in their trucks for several blocks. They later told investigators they suspected Arbery had committed burglary, but investigators say there is no evidence Arbery committed any crimes.
Prosecutors and family have maintained that Arbery was jogging when the McMichaels and Bryan armed themselves and pursued him. Racial justice and civil rights advocates have called the killing a modern-day lynching.
Lawyers for the accused trio, who have been charged with murder and other crimes, have maintained their actions were legal under a since-overhauled citizen arrest law and that 35-year-old Travis McMichael, who fired the fatal shots, was acting in self-defence after Arbery lunged at him after being cornered. The three men have also been charged with federal hate crimes.
Advocates have framed the upcoming trial as a further referendum on whether Black people in the US receive equal justice. Many are calling for the rare murder conviction of police officer Derek Chauvin in the May 2020 killing of unarmed Black man George Floyd to signal a sea change in accountability.
“If these killers get off without consequence, that sends the message that lynching Black men in 2021 carries no penalty,” Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights lawyer who represented Floyd’s family, told the AFP news agency.
Advocates say the delayed arrests of the McMichaels and Bryan further underscore the institutionalised racial injustice within law enforcement agencies across the US.
The McMichaels and Bryan were arrested charged more than two months after Arbery was killed, and only after video of the incident, taken by Bryan, leaked online, prompting state prosecutors to take over the case from local authorities.
Greg McMichaels, a 67-year-old retired Glynn County police officer, had previously worked with the local district attorney’s office initially responsible for the case. Former Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson was indicted last month for violating her oath of office and allegedly hindering the investigation into Arbery’s death.
Still, it remains to be seen just how much state prosecutors will emphasise the role of race in Arbery’s killing.
At a court hearing last year, a Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent testified that Bryan told investigators he witnessed Travis McMichael stand over a bleeding Arbery and utter a racist slur.
Travis McMichael’s attorneys have denied the claim.
Investigators also found text messages on Travis McMichael’s mobile phone from a year before the shooting in which he twice said the N-word in one exchange. Prosecutors included the texts in evidence filed in the public court record but have not requested to use them during the trial.
Meanwhile, defence lawyers want the judge to block prosecutors from showing the jury photos of the truck the McMichaels used to chase Arbery, particularly the vehicle’s front bumper vanity plate of Georgia’s former state flag, which includes the Confederate battle emblem.
The flag was changed to completely remove the symbol in 2003, with opponents saying it celebrated the state’s racist history.