BRUNSWICK, Ga. — A tense discussion broke out Thursday during the murder trial of three white men charged in Ahmaud Arbery’s killing when a defense attorney said the presence of “high-profile members of the African American community” may pressure or intimidate the jury.
Defense attorney Kevin Gough, who represents William “Roddie” Bryan, took issue with the Rev. Al Sharpton’s presence in the courtroom the day before.
“If we’re going to start a precedent, starting yesterday, where we’re going to bring high-profile members of the African American community into the courtroom to sit with the family during the trial in the presence of the jury, I believe that’s intimidating and it’s an attempt to pressure … or influence the jury,” Gough said.
Sharpton and civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who represents Arbery’s father, listened to testimony Wednesday after holding a press conference and prayer vigil outside outside, where Sharpton called Arbery’s killing “a lynching in the 21st century.”
Sharpton, who said he was invited to Brunswick by Arbery’s parents, raised concerns about the makeup of the jury failing to reflect the Black populationof Glynn County.While more than a quarter of Glynn County residents are Black, just one of 12 jurors is Black, according to information available to reporters.
Gough argued he was worried about “political interests” entering the courtroom.
“Obviously, there’s only so many pastors they (the family) can have,” Gough said, adding, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here, or any Jesse Jackson or whoever was in here earlier this week.”
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said she was unaware of Sharpton’s presence and did not take issue with it. “It’s a public courtroom,” Dunikoski added.
Gough, in response, referenced Colonel Sanders, the founder of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“If a bunch of folks came in here dressed like Colonel Sanders with white masks, sitting in the back, I mean that would be —” Gough began to say before the judge cut him off.
Gough stopped short of making a formal motion to bar anyone from the courtroom, and Judge Timothy Walmsley indicated he would not grant one if he did.
“The fact that nobody even noticed that (Sharpton) was in here means that everybody complied with this court’s rulings,” Walmsley said, adding, “I’m not going to blanketly exclude members of the public.”
Defense attorney Jason Sheffield, who represents Travis McMichael, said he was aware of Sharpton’s presence but that Sharpton was “not a distraction.”
In a statement, Sharpton said Gough’s comments were “insulting the family of the victim” and “pouring salt into their wounds.”
“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 spiritual and community support,” Sharpton said.
Outside the courtroom, Barbara Arnwine, founder of the Transformative Justice Coalition, said Gough’s comments follow a pattern of what she called “race-baiting” and “fearmongering.”
“He ought to be ashamed of himself,” Arnwine said as the coalition, a national social justice group, prepared to march to a mural of Arbery.
Atlanta-based attorney Gerald Griggs, who drove to Brunswick to join in protest with the group, said Gough’s comments “had no place in Georgia’s jurisprudence.”
“It’s an open courtroom,” Griggs said.
Thursday marked the fifth day of witness testimony in the trial. Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael and their neighbor, Bryan, are charged with murder and other crimes in Arbery’s death. Travis McMichael fatally shot Arbery on Feb. 23, 2020, after a neighbor saw Arbery at a house under construction and the three men got in trucks and pursued him.
Defense attorneys have presented a picture of a “neighborhood on edge” and a father and son who believed Arbery had been seen on surveillance video entering the construction site.
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Prosecutors have argued the defendants had no evidence Arbery committed a crime and that Arbery died because the men made a series of assumptions about what he was doing in their neighborhood.
Walmsley, the judge, has acknowledged the “racial overtones” in the case and said there was “intentional discrimination” in the jury selection process.
On Thursday, prosecutors played a recorded video deposition from Larry English, who owned a house under construction in the Satilla Shores neighborhood. The September recording included a series of surveillance videos from his property and 911 calls.
English told prosecutors he was building a second home at the site while living about two hours away. He set up motion-activated cameras that would alert him on his phone to any activity. From October 2019 through February 2020, English called police several times to reportseeing people on the site.
According to surveillance videos shown to jurors, a white couple walked onto the site one night, and a Black man that English believed to be “the same man” wandered around the property on at least five separate occasions. Asked by the prosecution if the man ever appeared to take anything, English said no.
English said he gave permission to a neighbor to confront people on the property but that he never gave permission to the McMichaels. On the day Arbery was killed, English said he saw the man on surveillance video and called the neighbor, not police.