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Jury selection begins in hate crimes trial of men convicted of killing Ahmaud Arbery

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

Jury selection started today in the federal hate crimes trial of three white men already convicted in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. They chased the 25-year-old Black man in pickup trucks and shot him to death two years ago as he ran through a residential neighborhood near Brunswick, Ga. NPR's Debbie Elliott joins us now. Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi there.

FLORIDO: Debbie, this case was among several in 2020 that led to a huge public outcry for racial justice. Bring us up to speed on what's happened since then and what this federal trial is about.

ELLIOTT: Well, father and son Greg and Travis McMichael and a neighbor of theirs, William "Roddie" Bryan, were convicted and then sentenced to life in prison in a Georgia court last year. Now they face this second trial in federal court, and it's going to focus on motive. Federal prosecutors are going to try to prove that the men violated Arbery's civil rights and targeted him because he was Black. They'll be presenting evidence of racial animus. Investigators have said they found racial slurs in the defendant's cell phone messages and on their social media posts, for instance. Now, on the other side, lawyers for the defendants are expected to once again make the case that these men went after Arbery because they suspected him of neighborhood break-ins, not because of his race.

FLORIDO: Well, jury selection started today. Tell us what happened in court.

ELLIOTT: Well, the first 50 prospective jurors reported to the federal courthouse in Brunswick for questioning. Some of that was done in open court, and some of it was done in private. In the very first round of opening questions, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood asked if anyone had never heard about the case, and no one raised a hand. So, Adrian, this was expected, as you said, given all the publicity surrounding such a high-profile case and one that is racially charged.

For that reason, the judge cast a really wide net, sending out a thousand jury notices across a wide expanse of South Georgia. By midday today, the court had dismissed nine people, including a woman who said she felt sorry for one of the defendants and another one who said she thought they were guilty. The court, in the end, is looking to find a pool of about three dozen people who say they can be fair and impartial. And at that point, each side can use strikes to set a jury of 12 plus four alternates, and that could take a couple of weeks.

FLORIDO: Well, with the defendants already sentenced to life in prison on state murder charges, Debbie, why pursue a federal hate crimes case?

ELLIOTT: This is something that Arbery's family has indicated they want to see laid out in open court, that their son was hunted down and killed because he was a Black man exercising his civil rights to run down a residential street. Here's what his mother's attorney, Lee Merritt, said after the state murder convictions.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE MERRITT: It's so important that the federal hate crime charges move forward because there is an issue of race taking place in this country. It has come front and center and needs to be discussed. And so we are looking forward to the federal trial, where the issue of motivation, the issue of hate that we believe was the motivating factor behind this murder is finally addressed.

FLORIDO: You've been speaking with folks in Brunswick, Debbie. What are you hearing about how people are feeling ahead of this second trial?

ELLIOTT: That it's going to be hard to rehash the tragedy, but it has the potential to move the country forward. Here's pastor John Perry of Mt. Sinai Missionary Baptist Church.

JOHN PERRY: I'll be so glad when we get to the end of this. How much longer? I'm certain that the family feels that way. I'm certain that our community feels that way. And at the same time, it's something that is being used to produce better.

ELLIOTT: Perry is part of a group of clergy who will be at the federal courthouse in support of Arbery's family.

FLORIDO: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott. Thanks, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Debbie Elliott
NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.