In 1955, two white men were acquitted in the kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old Black teenager. More than 65 years later, three white men are on trial charged with the murder of a 25-year-old Black man.
What links these cases goes beyond the white rage inflicted on Black people who are condemned to death for simply going about their lives. The Mississippi jury that freed Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, who both later confessed to torturing and shooting 14-year-old Emmett Till, was all-white. Except for one Black man, so is the Georgia jury that will decide the fate of Greg and Travis McMichael and William Bryan, who killed Ahmaud Arbery.
All that separates these cases is the indifference of time.
It took more than two weeks for the jury to be seated in the McMichael-Bryan murder trial. Defense attorneys spent much of that time grilling Black people and finding reasons to strike them from serving as jurors. The tactics weren’t even subtle.
In a county where about 26 percent of its 85,000 residents are Black, Kevin Gough, Bryan’s attorney, openly worried that the jury pool didn’t have enough “Bubbas or Joe six-packs,” as he called them. Gough apparently wanted men on that jury who might also see a Black man as inherently suspicious; who could be quick to grab a firearm; or wouldn’t think twice about hopping in a pickup truck and chasing him down. Arbery was shot multiple times by Travis McMichael.
Over objections from the prosecution, defense attorneys were allowed to remove eight Black potential jurors. Even Judge Timothy Walmsley, who is presiding over the trial, said, “This court has found that there appears to be intentional discrimination” in jury selection.
Inexplicably, he allowed the trial, which enters its fourth day Wednesday, to go forward. He said that a Georgia law restricted his ability to intervene.
“I have my concerns about getting a guilty verdict,” Wanda Cooper-Jones, Arbery’s mother, told ABC News about a jury selection process she called “very, very discouraging.” Yet she added that she believes that with the state’s evidence, including video of the incident recorded by Bryan, “we still will have a good outcome.”
What happened with the McMichael-Bryan jury pool recalls the infamous case of Curtis Flowers. If not for “In the Dark,” an American Public Media podcast that investigated his arrest and six trials, he might still be on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. For 23 years, Flowers, a Black man, languished in prison for a quadruple murder at a Mississippi furniture store in 1996. In 2019, Flowers’s conviction was finally overturned when the Supreme Court ruled that Doug Evans, the state’s prosecutor, denied Flowers’s constitutional rights by intentionally rejecting Black potential jurors from his sixth trial in 2010.
Batson v. Kentucky, a 1986 landmark Supreme Court case, determined that people cannot be removed from a jury pool simply because of their race. But that appears to be exactly what happened with a judge’s reluctant blessing, this time to the benefit of the white defendants charged with Arbery’s murder.
If the lone Black man on the McMichael-Bryan jury is excused or dismissed for some reason, he would be replaced by a white person — every alternate juror is white.
A 2004 Justice Department and FBI investigation into Till’s lynching examined the racist atmosphere of 1950s Mississippi when he was killed. That report found “an unwritten, de facto, separate legal system [that] served as the foundation for jurisprudence between blacks and whites,” a system “where the gravity of the crime was determined in large part by its impact on whites. The black community had almost no recourse when crimes [were] committed against blacks by whites.”
Black people still generally feel that lack of recourse. Justice often feels like a distant landscape that we see but can rarely reach. As one potential Black juror after another was stricken from the trial, it played out like a movie we’d all seen before — right down to the ways we’ve learned to brace ourselves for a devastating outcome.
Last week in court, Cooper-Jones watched for the first time the video of her son’s last moments. Within minutes, he goes from jogging to fighting for his life to dying in a pool of his own blood on a suburban Georgia road. And like Mamie Till-Mobley, whose only child died in 1955 at the hands of violent white men, another grieving Black mother waits to see if justice again will be whitewashed and denied.