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Trial over the killing of Ahmaud Arbery begins

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We begin this hour in Brunswick, Ga., where the men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery are standing trial. Arbery, a Black man, was killed in February of 2020 while he was jogging on a residential street.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

SHAPIRO: The shooting was captured on video.

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

It shows two white men waiting as Arbery jogs down the street. Moments before, those same men had chased Arbery in their pickup truck. As he gets closer, there's a struggle between one of the white men and Arbery. And then you hear three shotgun blasts.

SHAPIRO: Travis McMichael, his father Gregory, and their neighbor William Bryan, who filmed the shooting, all face state charges of murder, false imprisonment and aggravated assault. But those charges didn't come until two and a half months later, when the video of Arbery's killing was released.

MCCAMMON: Arbery's killing, along with those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, helped fuel the racial justice protests during the summer of 2020.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #1: (Chanting) Justice for Ahmaud. Justice for Ahmaud.

MCCAMMON: Around 100 activists gathered outside the courthouse today as jury selection started.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP #2: (Singing) Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring.

SHAPIRO: That sound of people gathered outside the courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., today as jury selection began - and NPR's Debbie Elliott is there.

Hi, Debbie.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: This case has received so much attention as part of the broader racial justice reckoning in the U.S. So what is happening at the beginning of the trial?

ELLIOTT: You know, there are people, you know, set up on the courthouse lawn watching what's happening here. Early this morning, there was an ecumenical gathering where people of different races and faiths joined together for song and prayer. Trevor Thomas (ph) was a song leader there. He's 18, a senior in a local high school here in Brunswick. And he talked about how Arbery's killing really hits home.

TREVOR THOMAS: You know, for something like this to happen in this town really was just like an eye-opener for most of us here. You know, it shouldn't be allowed that, you know, Black men can just walk in the street and, you know, then just because he was walking through an unfinished house, he was murdered.

ELLIOTT: The defendants will be arguing that they suspected Arbery of neighborhood break-ins because they had seen him on this home construction site in the area and they were trying to make a citizen's arrest when that struggle ensued. And they're going to be claiming self-defense.

SHAPIRO: How has jury selection been going today?

ELLIOTT: The first 600 of a thousand people who have been summoned were asked to report today. The balance will come next week. You know, this is like 10 times the typical jury pool in Glen County, Ga. They're answering some questionnaires about their knowledge of the case, and then they're being brought in in smaller groups to be questioned by attorneys. They're going to end up with 16 jurors, including four alternates. Now, Judge Timothy Walmsley spent a good part of the morning deciding what kinds of questions the prosecutors and defense lawyers will be allowed to ask, including very sensitive questions about the issue of race, about firearms and then, again, the larger implications of this case. Walmsley said all the attention has made this difficult, but he said the trial must proceed nonetheless.

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TIMOTHY WALMSLEY: And I have no doubt that the thousand or so individuals that were summoned, when they received that summons, reacted in some way to that, whether that was due to a concern for safety, due to their reputation in the community, how that might be affected if in fact they do participate. This is not an easy thing for anybody.

ELLIOTT: You know, and not easy to find jurors who don't have connections to either the victim or the defendant or strong opinions about them, as well as finding people who haven't made up their minds in such a highly publicized case. Already in this first day of questioning, several potential jurors have indicated that they have a negative opinion of the McMichaels.

SHAPIRO: This trial has become such a kind of - I don't know - case study in the push for racial justice in the U.S., and there have been so many other high-profile cases that have had a mixed bag of verdicts - Trayvon Martin, George Floyd, Walter Scott. How does Arbery's family view this?

ELLIOTT: You know, I think they understand the broader implications, but for them, it's also very personal and emotional. They're not only - you know, this is not only about the country's struggle, but they're looking to atone for their son's death. His father, Marcus Arbery, spoke briefly outside the courthouse today, calling this a lynching and saying he just wants justice for Ahmaud. The family's lawyer says what could make a difference, they think, in this case is the fact that this video exists that shows what happened.

SHAPIRO: So after they go through these thousand potential jurors and choose 16, what kind of evidence is likely to come out of the trial?

ELLIOTT: Well, certainly the video is going to be the most significant thing. Prosecutors are going to build around that to try to show that the McMichaels, with the help of their neighbor Bryan, chased Arbery in those pickup trucks. They trapped him, and then they shot him to death. Defense lawyers acknowledged that's going to be a major hurdle to overcome, along with allegations of racist behavior. For instance, they've tried to block a police cam video that shows a Confederate emblem on the front of Travis McMichael's pickup truck. There are also 911 calls and surveillance video from the neighborhood. But for now, the task is just finding a jury of people who, even if they've seen all of this already, can be impartial.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Debbie Elliott covering that trial in Brunswick, Ga.

Thank you.

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