The selection of an almost entirely white jury in Georgia to determine the fate of three men charged with murder in the persecution and murder of Ahmaud Arbery last year has brought racial justice concerns to the fore before the case the process even begins.

The trial of the white men who saw Arbery running in their neighborhood and shot the 25-year-old black man is part of the wider reckoning of racial injustice in the US legal system and whether black victims are treated fairly.

Arbery’s family and supporters had shaken their faith on Wednesday when the two-and-a-half-week jury selection ended with the judge agreeing to appoint a jury of 11 whites and one black.

Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley plans to have the jury sworn in on Friday to hear opening statements from attorneys on both sides. He intends to seat a total of 15 people: a main jury of 12 plus three deputies.

The total dropped by a Thursday when the judge dismissed a white woman from the main jury on medical grounds. The breed of the assistant judge who replaced her was not known. The judge did not name the breeds of the alternate judges, and they were not asked about their breed when the jury selected.

But the judge said he agreed with prosecutors that the exclusion of other potential Black jurors appeared to be “willful discrimination”. He also said Georgia law restricted his authority to intervene after defense attorneys did not provide racial reasons for the circumcision of those jurors.

“It is probably clearer than before that this race is at the forefront of this case and is likely to play a huge role in the deliberations of the jury,” said Page Pate, a Georgia criminal defense attorney not involved in the case.

A compilation of booking photos provided by the Glynn County, Georgia, Detention Center shows, from left, Travis McMichael, his father Gregory McMichael and William ‘Roddie’ Bryan Jr. They are jointly charged with murder. (Glynn County Detention Center via The Associated Press)

No arrests until the video is leaked

On February 23, 2020, Greg McMichael and his adult son Travis McMichael armed themselves and chased Arbery in a pickup truck as he ran in the Satilla Shores neighborhood just outside the port city of Brunswick, Georgia. A neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, took part in the chase with his own truck and made a cell phone video of Travis McMichael who shot Arbery three times with a shotgun.

No arrests were made until the graphical video of the shooting was leaked online more than two months later.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation took the case over from local police, and the McMichaels and Bryan were soon jailed for murder and other crimes.

Defense lawyers say the men did not commit any crimes. They say Arbery was caught by security cameras at a nearby house under construction and was suspected of theft. Greg McMichael told police his son opened fire in self-defense after Arbery attacked with his fists and reached for Travis McMichael’s shotgun.

Black potential jurors appeared to be subject to greater scrutiny than whites because they were interviewed by attorneys during jury selection, and the resulting jury likely endorses the defense, said Godfather, who practices in Atlanta and Brunswick.

“I’m not saying it’s deliberately discriminatory, or if it was just the dynamics of this case, but it was a lot harder to get on that jury if you were black than if you were white,” he said.

Many potential jurors expressed strong opinions about the Arbery murder, believing that race did play a role. Some knew Arbery or other members of his family. Defense attorneys cited these reasons for knocking blacks out of the jury pool.

It is unconstitutional to expel jurors based on race

The judge said the group of 48 people used to narrow down the final jury included 12 potential jurors who were black. Prosecutors were allowed to knock out a dozen people from the jury pool and defense attorneys were allowed to cut 24 for virtually any reason but one exception: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled it unconstitutional to expel potential jurors based solely on race or ethnicity.

“It is outrageous that black jurors were purposely disqualified in order to create such an unbalanced jury,” said Ben Crump, an attorney for Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery Sr., in a statement Thursday.

Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, left the courthouse on Wednesday and said she remained confident that the jury would “make the right decision”. But she also said she was “very shocked” that there was only one black juror on the panel.

“It’s frustrating for a family who just want a fair day in court without racial prejudice, but it’s built into our system,” said Lee Merritt, a Cooper-Jones attorney who has tried her with her.

Arbery’s mother says she was “very shocked” that there was only one black person on the jury, but remains confident that the jury will make the right decision. (Marcus Arbery / Handout via Reuters)

Jurors say they are open-minded

Most of the last 15 jurors had previously told attorneys they had seen the video, and many had read news stories about the case. Everyone said they could stay open-minded during the process.

“I don’t think the video is the full story,” said one juror, a woman who works in retail, saying she didn’t know enough to form an opinion on the case.

Another juror, a retired government official, described a conversation with her husband about the shooting as “likely something that read, ‘This is a shame that happened.’ “

Other jurors had stronger reactions to Arbery’s death. Calling the cell phone video of the shooting “obscene”, one young woman said, “There’s no reason anyone should ever watch someone else die.”

An Air Force veteran who made up the final jury said it was his impression that Greg McMichael was “following” Arbery. Another judge, a woman who works with volunteers, told the lawyers that she was a little “afraid” of the defendants, adding, “You’re driving around with a gun!”

A railroad worker on the jury said he could well consider whether Travis McMichael shot Arbery in self-defense, although he also noted that Arbery was unarmed.

“He had no gun or nothing and he was alone,” the judge said of Arbery. “There were three people who attacked one weapon and no one.”