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Ben Crump on the Start of Trials for Kyle Rittenhouse & the Killers of Ahmaud Arbery

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Only one Black juror, along with 11 white jurors, has been selected to hear the murder trial of three white men who fatally shot Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old Black man who was jogging through the suburbs of Brunswick, Georgia. The defendants — Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, as well as their neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan — claim they were attempting a citizen’s arrest when they chased and killed Arbery. Prosecutors asked Judge Timothy Walmsley to reinstate eight Black potential jurors, arguing defense lawyers struck them because of their race. The judge declined to change the jury’s racial makeup before the start of the trial Friday. We speak to attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing the Arbery family. “There was intentional discrimination,” he says. “I don’t know how you can conclude anything else.” We also speak with Crump about the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager who faces seven charges, including homicide, for fatally shooting two men and wounding a third amid racial justice protests last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Crump represents Jacob Blake, the Black man whose shooting by police sparked the protests.

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StoryNov 24, 2021“Why Are Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers So Scared?”: Self-Defense Claims by White Attackers Seen As Racist
Transcript
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. Before we head to Glasgow for the U.N. climate summit, we’re going to stay right here at home in the United States.

The murder trial begins today of three white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, the unarmed 25-year-old Black man who they chased down and shot to death while he was out for a jog last year in the suburbs of Brunswick, Georgia. Many have compared his death to a modern-day lynching.

A warning to our viewers and listeners: This segment contains graphic descriptions of violence.

On February 23rd, 2020, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis McMichael saw Arbery jogging, grabbed guns and pursued him in a pickup truck. Their neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, joined the pursuit in his own truck, recording the video on a cellphone. The McMichaels claim they were attempting a citizen’s arrest of Ahmaud. Travis McMichael fired two shots, killing Ahmaud.

The elder McMichael was a former Glynn County police officer and investigator for the Brunswick Judicial Circuit prosecutor Jackie Johnson, who was indicted for directing police not to arrest Travis McMichael and then steering the case to a sympathetic prosecutor. It was a third prosecutor who ultimately filed the murder charges in the case, after the video evidence became public, sparking widespread outcry.

More than a quarter of Glynn County is Black, but after a long and grueling process, just one person, a single Black man, was chosen to serve on the jury in the case, along with 11 white people. The judge, Timothy Walmsley, declined to change the jury’s racial makeup after prosecutors asked him to reinstate eight Black potential jurors, arguing defense lawyers struck them because of their race, which is unconstitutional.

JUDGE TIMOTHY WALMSLEY: The court has found that there appears to be intentional discrimination in the panel. That’s that prima facie case. And I guess, before I get into this, one of the challenges that I think counsel recognized in this case is the racial overtones in the case. … Quite a few African American jurors were excused through peremptory strikes exercised by the defense, but that doesn’t mean that the court has the authority to reseat.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Judge Walmsley, who said he believed there was intentional discrimination in the choosing of the jury, but went ahead with the racial composition of the jury — ultimately, 11 white people and one African American.

Arbery’s family has said they’re concerned about getting a guilty verdict. This is the family’s attorney, Lee Merritt, and Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, speaking to reporters Thursday outside the courthouse in Brunswick, Georgia.

WANDA COOPER-JONES: It’s like unreal. I mean, I just can’t put it into words. I was very shocked that we only had one Black, African American man. And, I mean, that was devastating.

LEE MERRITT: For a family who just wants to hear — they just want a fair day in court without racial bias, but it’s inherently built into our system. We need to continue to work to change the laws and improve our system so that it doesn’t continue, but it’s there.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as Judge Walmsley ruled Thursday the jury will not see a toxicology report showing Arbery had a small amount of THC, the psychoactive compound in marijuana, in his blood. This is the judge’s exchange with one of the defense attorneys.

JUDGE TIMOTHY WALMSLEY: It brought up a small amount of THC. I don’t know what that small amount of THC means.

JASON SHEFFIELD: You’re going to prevent us from going into toxicology. You’re going to prevent us from talking about corroboration of THC use, excessive THC, unless perhaps we can come back and educate the court on THC use, in and of itself, causing aggressive behavior, confrontational behavior, outside and isolated from mental illness diagnosis.

JUDGE TIMOTHY WALMSLEY: I’ve ruled.

JASON SHEFFIELD: That was my question to the court. But I think we’ve [inaudible] —

JUDGE TIMOTHY WALMSLEY: The court’s ruled.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as lawyers for Travis McMichael, who shot Arbery with a shotgun, have tried to limit evidence that suggests race was a motivating factor, including photos of his vanity license plate with a Confederate flag on it, on the front of his pickup truck.

For more, we’re joined in Chicago by civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who’s one of the lawyers for Arbery’s family.

Ben Crump, welcome back to Democracy Now! In a moment we’re going to talk about the Rittenhouse trial, but right now we’re going to talk about the murder case of Ahmaud Arbery. Talk about what’s happened so far. It took a long time to impanel this jury. A quarter of the county is Black — more than a quarter of the county. There’s only one Black juror. Explain what happened.

BENJAMIN CRUMP: It’s very disappointing, Amy, not only for Ahmaud’s mother and father, but for everybody who’s been following this case, the fact that you seem to have a jury that has more of the perspective, more of the commonalities with the killers of Ahmaud Arbery than the perspective of Ahmaud Arbery, this young Black man who literally was killed for jogging while Black. And it’s troubling because the court, when they granted 24 peremptory strikes from the beginning, that was troubling because, you see, they can systematically try to just strike Black people 24 times. That’s too many strikes. So, everybody who’s been looking at this case is saying that not only from the day one, when the police came out and tried to give cover for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery for jogging while Black, it seems that our criminal justice system gives them cover, too, when they are being brought to the tribunal of justice.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about Walmsley, the judge. It wasn’t the prosecutor or defense or an activist who used this term, “intentional discrimination.” It was the judge himself, who seemed furious that he couldn’t do something. He said, he admitted, there was intentional discrimination here. This involves the Batson challenge. If you could explain what that is?

BENJAMIN CRUMP: Certainly. The Batson challenge is a Supreme Court edict, based on case law, that says you cannot dismiss people based on their race, ethnicity or their gender. You have to have race-neutral reasons why you’re dismissing people from the jury panel.

I think the judge was being very honest and truthful when he said it appears that it was intentional discrimination. I don’t know how you can conclude anything else. However, the family would have liked for him to dismiss this panel so we could have a panel that was a jury of Ahmaud Arbery’s peers, who would sit in judgment concerning whether the killers will ever be held accountable. So, it is very troubling, Amy, again, that you only have one African American juror who’s going to hear this case.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I want to bring in the other case, and then we’ll talk about both. This is the Wisconsin case. Opening arguments have just begun in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the white teenager who faces seven charges, including homicide, for fatally shooting two men and wounding a third amidst the anti-police brutality protests in Kenosha last year. There’s only one person of color on that jury. The judge overseeing the trial has ruled the three protesters that Rittenhouse shot, killing two, wounding the third, cannot be labeled “victims” during the trial but can be called “rioters,” “looters” or “arsonists,” if the defense can provide evidence to justify such terms.

This week the judge removed a juror who was overheard joking about the shooting of Jacob Blake, the African American man left paralyzed last year after he was shot by Kenosha police. According to CNN correspondent Omar Jimenez, the juror approached a deputy and asked, “Why did it take seven shots to shoot Jacob Blake?” Then he answered himself, “Because they ran out of bullets.” Judge Bruce Schroeder questioned the juror about his conduct, then dismissed him, citing the need for public confidence in a fair trial.

JUDGE BRUCE SCHROEDER: It is clear that the appearance of bias is present, and it would seriously undermine the outcome of the case. … I think the best thing under the circumstances, I’m going to dismiss you from the jury, sir.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he has been kicked off the jury, but he was chosen to be on the jury. Can you talk about the composition of this jury and what’s at stake in the video that’s — new video that’s been released showing Rittenhouse opening fire?

BENJAMIN CRUMP: Yeah. You know, the similarities in the two cases are quite shocking, when you think about the video shows both of the killers in these cases actively pursuing people who are unarmed. And that has to say something about our system of justice, where we’re at in America today. You cannot allow people to hunt down individuals with shotguns and assault rifles, and then there be no accountability.

Then there seems to be a suggestion that the criminal justice system will protect certain people but condemn others who had no weapon. When you think about all these minorities, especially Black men, in the criminal justice system, in the prison-industrial complex, where there was no video evidence, it was based on just innuendo, circumstantial evidence, but we can always find a way to convict them; however, when it’s white men shooting unarmed people, it seems that it’s such a challenge to convict them. It talks about the need for us to finally confront the original issue in America, and that is racism and discrimination.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask one more question about the judge, Bruce Schroeder, in the Rittenhouse case. Addressing the jury, he evoked the Bible to explain the hearsay rule.

JUDGE BRUCE SCHROEDER: This is actually referred to in the Bible. Saint Paul, when he was put on trial in — in — I think it’s Caesarea. Well, it was over in Palestine, in Israel. He was accused of some activity. And he was a Roman citizen, which was not common, but he happened to have been a Roman citizen, and so he has rights that we share now as Americans.

AMY GOODMAN: The judge also used his position on the bench to slam media coverage of the Rittenhouse trial. Here, he’s criticizing CNN for questioning his edict to attorneys not to refer to any of those shot by Rittenhouse as “victims.”

JUDGE BRUCE SCHROEDER: This was on CNN, Jeffrey Toobin and another attorney there. And a comment was made that the ruling was incomprehensible. And I think they obviously are not familiar with this rule. That’s our law.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of this, Ben Crump, evoking the Bible — invoking the Bible and then this whole issue of not being able to refer to the men who were killed as “victims,” but possibly as “looters” or “arsonists”?

BENJAMIN CRUMP: It’s very questionable, when you think about the fact that the defense should be able to do everything they can to zealously defend their clients, but also the prosecutors have to be able to zealously prosecute the case, and so you can’t put shackles on one party and let the other party have an unfair advantage. And so, what we’re trying to get, Amy, is a system that would allow due process for everybody involved. And that’s why I continue to say we can’t have two justice systems in America — one for Black America and another for white America. We have to have equal justice for every citizen in the United States of America.

And, obviously, my heart breaks as I sit here and I think about that juror telling the joke about our client, Jacob Blake Jr., and why it took seven bullets to stop him, and his response was “because we ran out of bullets.” How do you think that makes Jacob Blake feel as he sits paralyzed today watching coverage about three people shot who was protesting for him to get a chance at justice, which he was denied because no charges were brought? There are two justice systems in America, and we have to continue to fight to say that we all need one justice system, not when white men shoot people, they are treated differently; when Black men are accused of shooting people, the book is thrown at them. That’s why we fight so hard, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Crump, I want to thank you for being with us, civil rights attorney representing the family of Ahmaud Arbery, as well as the Jacob Blake family.

Next up, youth activists are taking to the streets of Glasgow today to demand world leaders do more to avert a climate catastrophe. We’ll get the latest and hear a moving address by a youth climate activist from Kenya. Stay with us.

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