Ahmaud Arbery and the limits of justice

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Eleven white jurors and one Black juror.

We are in week two of the Ahmaud Arbery trial, and I wanted to remind you of the make-up of the jury in the case of a Black Georgia man who was shot and killed by three white men.

A father and son duo — Gregory McMichael and Travis McMichael — and their neighbor, William Bryan, decided to take the law into their own hands. They told authorities they pursued Arbery to make a citizen’s arrest because they “suspected” he was the culprit in a string of break-ins in their neighborhood.

From the outset, even prior to the start of the trial, the case has been mired in controversy and questionable decisions.

Kevin Gough, Bryan’s attorney, openly worried the jury pool didn’t have enough “Bubbas or Joe six-packs." Eight potential Black jurors were removed by the defense, something Linda Dunikoski, a special prosecutor from the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, challenged in court. Dunikoski cited a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that states that it is clearly unconstitutional to prohibit potential jurors based on their race or ethnicity.

More than one-quarter of Glynn County residents (the country where the trial is being held) are Black. Glynn County Superior Court Judge Timothy R. Walmsley conceded that “quite a few Black jurors were excused through peremptory strikes executed by the defense.” Despite this admission, he ultimately ruled that the defense had given legitimate reasons for why each juror was removed.

Really? Makes you wonder!

When I first found out about Arbery’s death, I will confess it took me a few minutes to process what I had heard and read. A man murdered for jogging? Yes — jogging! I was incredulous! This happened in March 2020, almost eight years to the day after the grizzly, savage murder of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin by that abominable creature, that poor excuse for a human being, George Zimmerman. This grim irony has not been lost on many Black people.

Jogging while Black. Driving while Black. Walking while Black. Sitting in a public space while Black. Asking for help while Black. Eating while Black. Merely existing while Black. The cold, agonizing, disturbing truth is that to be Black in America is to regularly endure an ongoing onslaught of assaults and insults. These incidents are a stark reminder that to be Black in America means to live in a constant state of uncertainty.

Even more disturbing is the fact that it took over two months for the men to be arrested and charged in the killing. Jackie Johnson, the former district attorney for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit, was charged with violating her oath of office by currying favor to Greg McMichael, whose father once worked in her office. She was also indicted on obstruction of justice charges for telling officers on the day of the shooting not to arrest Travis.

The fact is that Arbery was minding his own business when the sinister father-and-son duo took it upon their racially profiling selves to violently and sadistically pump several bullets into his body. He was the victim of a modern-day lynching. The entire issue is sickening.

As if the searing drama in the trial itself isn’t horrific enough, the dastardly antics and shenanigans surrounding jury selection gives many legal observers cause for pause. The trial reeks of political and judicial incest, resembling something straight out the Jim Crow south.

Our criminal justice system states that when a person is charged with a crime, they are entitled to a jury of their peers. No one can argue that the lopsided racial demographics of the jury in this case have been favorably granted toward the defense. Those of us hoping a for a fair trial can only hope that truth and justice will prevail.

Elwood Watson is a professor of history, Black studies, and gender and sexuality studies at East Tennessee State University. He is also an author and public speaker.

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