A lawyer representing one of the three white men accused of chasing down and killing Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man, told a judge the defence did not want “any more Black pastors” coming into the Georgia courtroom where the trial is being held.
Lawyer Kevin Gough made the comments on Thursday as the trial of father and son – Gregory McMichael, 65, and Travis McMichael, 35 – and their neighbour William “Roddie” Bryan continued. The trio are accused of chasing down and fatally shooting 25-year-old Arbery as he was running in a mostly white neighbourhood in the city of Brunswick in February 2020.
Gough, who represents Bryan, made the comments after US civil rights leader, Reverand Al Sharpton, attended the trial on Wednesday and conducted a prayer vigil with Arbery’s parents outside the court.
“If their pastor’s Al Sharpton right now, that’s fine. But then that’s it. We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here … sitting with the victim’s family, trying to influence a jury in this case,” Gough said.
“We want to keep politics out of this case,” he added, suggesting the presence of figures like Sharpton “could be consciously or unconsciously an attempt to pressure or influence the jury”.
Judge Timothy Walmsley responded he was “not going to blanketly exclude members of the public from this courtroom”.
Sharpton swiftly condemned the request, which comes amid a trial many observers view as the latest referendum on racial justice in the US. Video of Arbery’s killing, along with the killing of several other Black people in the US, helped to stoke months-long demonstrations in 2020.
— Reverend Al Sharpton (@TheRevAl) November 11, 2021
“The arrogant insensitivity of attorney Kevin Gough in asking a judge to bar me or any minister of the family’s choice underscores the disregard for the value of the human life lost and the grieving of a family in need [of] spiritual and community support,” Sharpton said.
He added his attendance was “not disruptive in any way” and was “at the invitation of the family”.
Racial issues loom large
The McMichaels and Bryan chased Arbery in their trucks after spotting him running in the neighbourhood. He was then fatally shot by Travis McMichael.
They told investigators they suspected him in a string of burglaries in the area. Travis McMichael has claimed self-defence in the killing.
Prosecutors say Arbery was an avid jogger who was forced to run for his life when he was pursued by the armed trio. They say he was killed based on an assumption.
The case is expected to hinge, in part, on Georgia’s controversial citizen’s arrest law, which was repealed in the wake of the killing.
Officials took more than two months to bring charges against the McMichaels, and did so after mobile phone video of the shooting was leaked online and caused public outrage. Bryan was charged with the murder a few weeks later.
On Thursday, the jury was shown videos of Arbery walking around a vacant property on earlier visits to the Georgia neighbourhood where he was shot, although no surveillance footage has shown Arbery committing a crime.
The trio have also been charged with federal hate crimes.
Prosecutors had previously accused defence lawyers of striking eight potential Black jurors solely because of their race.
While Judge Walmsley said the initial pool of potential jurors roughly reflected the demographic makeup of Glynn County, which has a 27 percent Black population, 11 of the 12 final jurors chosen were white.
The defence maintained the prospective jurors were dismissed for other reasons.
Walmsley acknowledged there appeared to be “intentional discrimination” by the defence lawyers in shaping the jury, but said the “court is not going to place upon the defendants a finding that they are … not being truthful with the court when it comes to their reason for striking the jurors”.