We travel to Brunswick, Georgia for an update on the jury selection process in the trial against three white men who shot Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old, while he was going for a run 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 opened fire, 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.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be final.
AMY GOODMAN:This week, Georgia’s jury selection began for Ahmaud Abery’s trial. Ahmaud was a 25-year old Black man who was running in the suburbs in Brunswick, Georgia. Many have compared his death with a modern-day execution.
Warning to viewers and listeners: This segment contains graphic depictions of violence.
Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, saw Arbery running, grabbed guns, and chased 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. Ahmaud was killed by Travis McMichael, who fired two shots.
McMichael, the elder, was a former Glynn county police officer and investigator for Jackie Johnson, Brunswick judicial circuit prosecutor. She was recently indicted as having directed police not to arrest Travis McMichael, and then steering it to a sympathetic prosecution. After the video evidence was made public, it was a third prosecutor who filed the murder charges. This prompted widespread outcry.
We’re joined now by two guests. Lee Merritt is a civil right attorney representing Ahmaud’s family. Thea Brooks is Ahmaud’s aunt. She’s been leading rallies outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Georgia since Monday.
Thea Brooks, thank you so much for being here. We send our deepest condolences for the loss of your nephew. I know that he lived with us at the end. And you’ve been monitoring closely what’s happening this week in the courtroom. Can you talk about community support? People have come all over the country to Brunswick to see what’s happening in the courtroom.
THEAWANZA BROOKS:First, let me clarify. He never lived in the same house as 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.
THEAWANZA BROOKS:Brunswick has received amazing support. 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:I was wondering if you could talk about this level of support and what it means. I was just reading a story about the judge’s response to the defense lawyers asking for all signs to be removed from the outside. The judge pointed out that the courthouse grounds were 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 more about the scene outside, the signs and T-shirts being worn, and why it has caught the attention of so many?
THEAWANZA BROOKS:The signs outside of the courthouse are exactly what they say. 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. This sign is also seen in many other places. It was there in Minneapolis. It was there that Philando Castile was shot. You’ve seen it so many places. So I’m not understanding what the issue is here in Brunswick, Georgia.
I understand that there are many injustices in this country, and that this is one of those injustices. The signs are support. I don’t see what the issue is. These people came from all over the country, including Washington, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and even Virginia. 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:Tell us about Ahmaud. Please tell us about Ahmaud. Describe the young man who was killed in his prime.
THEAWANZA BROOKS:Ahmaud, his infant, and toddler years were spent together. As he grew older, his mom moved to another part Brunswick and we lost touch. We spent a lot time together at Ahmaud’s house a few months before Ahmaud died. His mom was a Texas worker.
We never missed a beat. He was bright and young, even if I met him while jogging. He had a beautiful smile. He was extraordinary. He was always generous. 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.”
He was a remarkable young man. He was bright. He had a bright future. He had a vision. He loved to rap. He loved spending time with his cousins who were like his brothers. He loved his sister and brother. He loved his mother the most. His mom was everything to his heart. He saw her as a jewel in his eyesight. He was an extraordinary young man.
That was something they took from us, you see? 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. Ahmaud was loved. And that’s all I can really say about him. He was loved. He was the child everyone would want.
AMY GOODMAN:Lee Merritt, the attorney for Ahmaud’s family, is also with us. This story is rarely discussed as a story about law enforcement. They mention three white men, right. Roddie Bryan, father and son, McMichaels Gregory McMichael, his son Travis, and Roddie Bryan were actually the ones who drove the pickup truck to Ahmaud’s house. The elder McMichael, a former Glynn County officer and investigator for Jackie Johnson, was actually the McMichael. She was indicted for her role in directing police to not arrest her son and then steering the case towards a sympathetic prosecutor. Lee Merritt can you guide us through the prosecution?
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:Yes. This all happened in February 2020. It took 74 days for anyone to be arrested. One of the defendants decided that the video would clear up some of those rumors about Ahmaud’s murder. 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. Because of the national outcry, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called in to assist when the video became public. It became almost instantly viral. The dominoes then began to fall.
AMY GOODMAN: And the fact that Gregory McMichael was in law enforcement, was a police officer, was an investigator —
AMY GOODMAN: — and then that connection to Jackie Johnson, who herself, this Brunswick judicial circuit prosecutor, has just been charged.
LEE MERRITT:Greg McMichael has been working in Glynn county law enforcement for many years. His most recent job was an investigator for Jackie Johnson. Johnson was the former Glynn County prosecutor. Gregory McMichael, his former boss, called him right after Ahmaud was killed to let him know that he needed assistance.
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 to George Barnhill, a sympathetic prosecutor. She continued to put her thumbs on justice’s scale. She told law enforcement that these men shouldn’t be arrested. She advised them not to arrest 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. There were many inappropriate relationships that were allowed, despite obvious conflicts.
AMY GOODMAN:Can you also talk about the citizen arrest law McMichaels used to stop Ahmaud? This law has been repealed in Georgia by state lawmakers. How does that affect 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. To be able to use that law, they must first prove that Ahmaud was present during a crime, a felony, or that Ahmaud 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. The law would not allow for that. It is the defense that they’re still fighting for. The people of Georgia have decided to take that defense out of the books. Although it is still available to Mr. Bryan and the McMichaels for their defense, it is not available for Mr. Bryan.
AMY GOODMAN:Thea Brooks, could you tell me how often Ahmaud visited that Brunswick neighborhood? Can you also talk about the description of the community, the division between black and white, and how it was segregated?
THEAWANZA BROOKS:Ahmaud did not just run in the community, he also ran all over Glynn County. That was his thing. He was very active. 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 many tractor-trailers that travel out there. There is actually a truck stop. So it’s a very busy highway that leads to Interstate 95. You would think that jogging through the neighborhoods would be safer because of the heavy traffic. So, Ahmaud’s jog was a daily jog, unless it was pouring down rain and he just couldn’t get out. 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. These people do question us when they go into these neighborhoods. 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. We deal with it regularly. 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. Ahmaud was shot to death, and you saw signs. T-shirts were also visible. You can see signs everywhere, people wearing shirts every single 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 are now running for Maud primarily on their own.
AMY GOODMAN:Lee Merritt, could you please talk about jury selection and what you see. And you’ve got the new hate crime laws that have been passed by the Georgia state Legislature. What role will this have in the trial?
LEE MERRITT:Glynn County jury selection will 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. Many of the jurors who have been brought in went to school with the defendants.
One of the jurors, at least, was qualified to sit on this jury. He works in Jackie Johnson’s office, in the Glynn County Prosecutor Office. Jackie Johnson hired him after Ahmaud Arbery’s murder. He also knows Greg McMichael personally. She casually referred to him as Greg in court. 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. The court stated that, despite being able to be called as a witness in court, she was qualified for 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. The jury selection process begins. This is where defense and prosecution can start selecting jurors and striking them.
AMY GOODMAN:What role does race play in this?
LEE MERRITT:The video doesn’t show that McMichaels used N-words. 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:This is a house that was built.
LEE MERRITT: That’s correct, the house that was still under construction. The dwelling was visited by many people. Ahmaud was seen there several times. He had never been convicted of any crime there. He was the only one to be criminalized for 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. There are many social media posts and texts that address the issue of race. Even after Ahmaud’s death, some of the social media banter between the McMichaels & the community was celebratory about the fact that they had killed an African man in the community.
AMY GOODMAN:Lee Merritt (an attorney representing Ahmaud’s family) and Thea Brooks (aunt of Ahmaud’s), I want to say a sincere thank you. Our deepest condolences go out again.
Coming up, as President Biden campaigns for his Build Back Better agenda, we’ll look at the records of Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, fighting Biden at every turn. Stay with us.