Barring reporters from court for one part of jury selection in the upcoming murder trial of three men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery would violate well-established precedent and be a “striking step in the wrong direction,” media outlets, including The Associated Press, said Tuesday in a court filing.
Attorneys for two of the defendants have asked a Georgia judge to keep media outlets out of the courtroom when lawyers question potential jurors to determine whether they have biases in the widely publicized case. They say it’s critical that potential jurors feel as comfortable as possible answering questions about race and other sensitive topics to ensure that Greg McMichael and Travis McMichael are tried by an impartial jury.
The white father and son are charged with murder in the February 2020 killing of Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was chased and shot after the McMichaels spotted him running in their neighborhood outside the coastal port city of Brunswick. A neighbor who joined the pursuit, William “Roddie” Bryan, was also charged with murder.
The U.S. and Georgia Supreme Courts have held that the questioning of potential jurors — a process known as voir dire — must be open to the public and press, attorneys for the media outlets said in their filing. Closure can only be considered in “extraordinary circumstances” when a potential juror makes that request and evidence shows public questioning would significantly harm the person’s privacy, they added.
The other outlets are The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, CNN, Cox Media Group for Action News Jax, WSB-TV and radio and Gannett, publisher of USA Today.
Jason Sheffield, an attorney for Travis McMichael, said he was not surprised media outlets were objecting. He believes in an open courtroom, but “in limited circumstances, the defendant’s right to a fair trial can and will trump” that, he said.
“In order to ascertain which jurors are suitable to serve in a case such as this case — one that has accumulated more pretrial publicity than most — we have to create the best environment for jurors to share their true thoughts, beliefs, biases and prejudices,” he said in a phone interview.
Arbery’s killing sparked a national outcry last year amid protests over racial injustice. The McMichaels armed themselves with guns and pursued Arbery in a pickup truck when they spotted him running in their neighborhood on Feb. 23, 2020. Bryan joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery three times at close range with a shotgun.
All three defendants have said they committed no crimes. Defense attorneys say the McMichaels had a valid reason to pursue Arbery, thinking he was a burglar, and that Travis McMichael shot him in self-defense as Arbery grappled for his shotgun.
The media outlets said in their filing that publicity was not sufficient to try to “stifle informed public discussion or reporting on a case,” and the defense had failed to show evidence that its clients would face bias under an open process.
They cited the high-profile trial of former Minneapolis police Officer Derek Chauvin for the slaying of George Floyd, noting that a judge in that case required potential jurors be questioned in public.
“To foster public confidence in the fairness of the trial and the verdict reached by the jury, it is vital that the public and press be permitted to observe all portions of the trial, including voir dire,” they said.
Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley has scheduled a hearing with attorneys Thursday to discuss pretrial motions and jury selection, which is scheduled for October. Neither he nor prosecutors have weighed in on the request to bar reporters from voir dire.