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Arbery family says they were denied access to jury selection in federal hate crimes case

An attorney with the family said prosecutors and the victim advocate told the family jury selection is closed to the public and that they couldn't attend.

BRUNSWICK, Ga. — The first day of jury selection started Monday in the federal hate crimes case against the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. It was who wasn't in attendance, however, that was noticeable.  

Arbery's family, who has come to almost every other court proceeding in the state and federal cases, was missing. An attorney with the Arbery family, Barbara Arnwine of the Transformative Justice Coalition, said the family was told they couldn't attend jury selection. Arnwine said they were told that it was closed to the public. 

Arnwine said Assistant United States Attorney Tara Lyons confirmed this when Arnwine asked her. Arnwine said Lyons told her only the attorneys on the case and the defendants would be allowed in the courtroom.

"We are not happy," Arnwine said.

"How do they justify excluding the victim's family and their legal teams," she said.

Marcus Arbery Sr., Arbery's father, told On Your Side's Kailey Tracy by phone Monday he would be there if he could. Arbery Sr. also said the family was told they couldn't be there.

Arnwine said as recently as Monday morning they checked with the victim advocate who told them the family couldn't come until jury selection ended. 

Rows were blocked off in the courtroom Monday for Arbery's family and for the defendants' families, who weren't there. First Coast News reached out to the clerk of the court for clarification.

The clerk responded with the following statement.

"The jury process continues to be open to the media and the victim’s family. As you noticed, the signage was absolutely intended for the family. The court continues to encourage maximum participation from the family.

Thank you for bringing this to my attention."

First Coast News also reached out to the Department of Justice and are waiting to hear back. After speaking with Arnwine, she said Arbery Sr., his family and Arnwine herself will be in court tomorrow. 

As for jury selection, Monday, things moved faster than expected. Out of 52 potential jurors questioned, 30 qualified to come back next week for more questioning.

The judge and attorneys on both sides dismissed 22 of the 52 potential jurors Monday. One of those dismissed includes a woman who knew one of the men convicted of murdering Arbery, William Roddie Bryan. She said he used to do work on her farm equipment, and that she "feels bad for him."

Another woman excused said if she were in the defendants' shoes, she wouldn't want someone in her mindset to serve on the jury. A man who was excused said if the defendants didn't testify, he thinks that means they're guilty. 

The witness list is about 30 to 40 people long. The defense is calling six people total, including a local attorney who released the video of the shooting. Prosecutors are calling several witnesses that took the stand in the state case, including Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents, and police officers with the Glynn County Police Department.

Prosecutors in the federal case are also calling Bryan's fiancé, Amy Elrod, who wasn't called in the state case. 

One thousand people were summoned for jury duty from 43 counties in Georgia's Southern Federal Court District to try to get a fair and impartial jury of 12 jurors and four alternates. 

All potential jurors questioned Monday said they'd heard about the case.

Arbery's aunt, Thea Brooks, said she thinks it will be tough to find a fair and impartial jury.

"Honestly, I really feel like everybody has already formed their opinion about this case," Brooks said. "Everybody has already formed an opinion. So, I don't really know how accurate or how good it'll be. All we can do is pray like we've been doing for the best and that they pick the right people, and they make the right decisions."

Brooks said she and her family are mentally preparing for what they may hear in the federal hate crimes trial.

“You have to be prepared, but there has been a little bit of rest in between [the state and federal trials] in order to prepare. So now let's just go back in the courtroom head held high, and to continue to fight like we've done since the beginning," Brooks said. 

The goal of the court is to get to the magic number of 36 potential jurors so attorneys on both sides can then use their strikes to narrow it down to 12 jurors and four alternates. At the end of the day Monday, U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood said she wants to now get to 50 to 60 potential jurors due to potential COVID concerns. 

Right now, the makeup is fairly mixed when it comes to potential jurors' age, gender and race. 

Wood said once the jury is picked, the trial will last seven to 12 days. Two groups of potential jurors will be questioned each day. Day two of jury selection starts at nine a.m. Tuesday.

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