An attorney for one of the three white men accused of murder in the death of Ahmaud Arbery objected Thursday to the presence of the Rev. Al Sharpton in the courtroom, saying it could intimidate the jury.
“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” the lawyer, Kevin Gough, who is representing William “Roddie” Bryan, told Judge Timothy Walmsley, when the jury was out of the courtroom.
Gough claimed he didn’t learn until Wednesday night that Sharpton had been in court that day.
“I’m guessing he was there at the invitation of the victim’s family in this case,” Gough said when court resumed after a lunch break. “And I have nothing personal against Mr. Sharpton. My concern is that it’s one thing for the family to be present. It’s another thing to ask for the lawyers to be present.”
He added: “But if we’re going to start a precedent, starting yesterday, where we’re going to bring high-profile members of the African American community into the courtroom to sit with the family during the trial in the presence of the jury, I believe that’s intimidating and it’s an attempt to pressure — could be consciously or unconsciously — an attempt to pressure or influence the jury.”
Gough said that “to his knowledge,” Sharpton doesn’t have a church in Glynn County, Georgia, where the trial is being held “and never has.”
“We have school board members, we have county commissioners, we have all kinds of pastors in this town. Over 100. And the idea that we’re going to be serially bringing these people in to sit with the victim’s family, one after another, obviously there’s only so many pastors they can have,” Gough said. “And if their pastor right now is Al Sharpton, that’s fine. Then that’s it. We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here … trying to influence the jury in this case.”
Sharpton, the leader of the National Action Network and an MSNBC host, said in a statement that his attendance Wednesday was not disruptive in any way and was at the invitation of Arbery’s family, who have stated that publicly.
“The arrogant insensitivity of attorney Kevin Gough in asking a judge to bar me or any minister of the family’s choice underscores the disregard for the value of the human life lost and the grieving of a family in need spiritual and community support,” he said.
“This is pouring salt into their wounds,” Sharpton added. “I respect the defense attorney doing his job but this is beyond defending your client, it is insulting the family of the victim.”
Outside of court Wednesday, Sharpton called Arbery’s killing “a lynching in the 21st century.”
“Despite the fact this country was able to grow to the point of electing and re-electing a Black president, grow to the point of electing now a Black woman vice president, you still can’t jog through Brunswick,” Sharpton said, referring to the town where Arbery was killed.
Gough also took exception to the presence of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, whom he said sat with Arbery’s family in the gallery this week.
Gough said he was not accusing prosecutors of arranging for Sharpton’s presence, because he said he wasn’t aware Sharpton had been in court until Wednesday evening.
“I think the court can understand my concern about bringing people in who really don’t have any ties to this case other than political interests,” Gough said. “And we want to keep politics out of this case.”
He told the judge he was asking the court “to take appropriate steps to make sure that the gallery,” which is already limited, “isn’t being utilized for a purpose that could be viewed as improper.”
Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said “the state had no part in that whatsoever.”
“It’s a public courtroom and I have no idea how the Rev. Al Sharpton appeared to be here,” she said. “So the state is unaware of how that occurred or how he came to be seated with the family.”
Walmsley said he was made aware Wednesday that Sharpton would be sitting in the courtroom instead of someone from Arbery’s family.
“And my comment to that was simply, as long as things are not disruptive and it’s not a distraction to the jury or anything else going on in the courtroom, so be it,” Walmsley said. “But if it violates the court’s rules with regard to the conduct of the trial or violates my orders with respect to how people are to conduct themselves in this courtroom, I will take it up with whomever I need to take it up with.”
Walmsley said he noticed Sharpton once “and that was it.”
“And the fact that nobody else even noticed that he was in here, means that everybody complied with this court’s rulings on sitting in this courtroom and listening to the evidence,” Walmsley said. “I don’t hear a motion and I will tell you this, I am not going to blanketly exclude members of the public from this courtroom.”
“If individuals, based on the limitations that we have, in the courtroom, end up sitting in the courtroom, and they can do so respectful of the court’s process and in compliance with this court’s orders with regard to the conduct of the trial,” Walmsley said, adding that if a person wasn’t a distraction, he wouldn’t do anything about it.
He said he didn’t hear from anyone that there was any distraction whatsoever. “In fact, what I just heard is that nobody was even aware that he was in here,” he said, which drew a response from Jason Sheffield, who is representing another defendant, Travis McMichael.
Sheffield said he did notice Sharpton was in court but that he was not a distraction.
Father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael armed themselves and used a pickup truck to pursue Arbery after they spotted him running in their neighborhood in Satilla Shores, a neighborhood just outside the port city of Brunswick, in February 2020. Their neighbor, Bryan, joined the chase and took cellphone video of Travis McMichael shooting Arbery, 25, in the street at close range.
More than two months passed before the three men were arrested, after the video leaked online and sparked outrage. The McMichaels and Bryan are charged with murder and other crimes.
Race has been a central issue in the case. Sharpton and many others have criticized the makeup of the jury, which has only one person of color. Dunikoski, a special prosecutor from the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office, challenged the defense attorneys’ removal of eight Black potential jurors. She argued it was unconstitutional to strike people from a jury solely because of their race.
Walmsley said there appeared to be “intentional discrimination,” and after reviewing the eliminations, he acknowledged that “quite a few African American jurors were excused through peremptory strikes executed by the defense.”
But the judge ruled that for each of the eight stricken jurors, the defense had provided a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory, clear, reasonably specific and related reason” as to why they should not be seated.
Defense attorneys have said the three defendants were justified to chase and attempt to detain Arbery because they suspected he was a burglar. They say Travis McMichael fired in self-defense when Arbery threw punches and tried to grab his gun.
Each defense team is expected to argue that the men were making a citizen’s arrest, which was then permitted under state law.
Gough deferred making an opening statement until after prosecutors rest their case, which Georgia courts allow.