One of the defense attorneys for Ahmaud Arbery’s killers was in his feelings when he found out Rev. Al Sharpton had stopped by the Georgia courtroom to sit with the slain young Black man’s family.
“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,” Kevin Gough, defense attorney for William “Roddie” Bryan, said in court Thursday. “If their pastor’s Al Sharpton right now, that's fine, but then that's it.”
Despite Sharpton being so elusive that only one of seven attorneys in the courtroom even noticed him, Gough asked that the judge stop famous Black people from sitting in on the trial of Bryan, Gregory McMichael, and his son, Travis, who are all facing nine charges, including murder, in Arbery’s killing in February 2020 in Georgia. The attorney said he’s concerned that someone as famous as Sharpton could introduce politics into the case and influence the jury.
“We don't want any more Black pastors coming in here, or other Jesse Jacksons, whoever was in here earlier this week, sitting with the victim's family trying to influence a jury in this case,” Gough said.
“If a bunch of folks came in here dressed like Colonel Sanders with white masks sitting in the back, I mean, that would be—” Gough continued before being cut off by Judge Timothy Walmsley, who’s presiding over the case.
Gough admitted he wasn’t even aware Sharpton had walked in until after court was dismissed Wednesday. Prosecutor Linda Dunikoski also said she wasn’t aware Sharpton was sitting next to Arbery’s family. In fact, only Gregory McMichael’s attorney Jason Sheffield made note of Sharpton, and he told the judge that he didn’t have an issue with it.
Walmsley said he was told that Sharpton would stop by during Wednesday’s lunch break and didn’t mind as long as he didn’t disturb any of the proceedings. He argued that not even the jury would have seen him because a large barrier in front of where he was sitting obscured him from their view.
“I will tell you that I noticed him once and that was it,” Walmsley said. “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. And I will tell you this, I'm not going to blanketly exclude members of the public from this courtroom.”
Melissa Redmon, the prosecutorial justice program director at the University of Georgia’s School of Law and a former Fulton County district attorney, told VICE News that while Sharpton is one of the most recognizable figures in the Black community, Gough had little grounds to ask the judge to bar him, Jesse Jackson, or anyone one else, for that matter.
“Where do I even begin?” Redmon told VICE News. “Basically what you’re saying is Sharpton’s mere presence will elicit the sympathy of the jury, causing them to disregard all of the evidence and the instructions given to them in the courtroom.”
“The only basis to limit anyone from the courtroom would be if there is testimony that is sensitive in nature,” she continued.
Often these moments involve protecting victims of sexual or minors testifying in court. But even then, the limits the court can set aren’t very restrictive as only those portions of the trial will be closed to the public to protect those individuals.
“The privacy of the individual has to override the right of access to the public,” Redmon said. “But if Al Sharpton is coming in in his suit and he’s sitting down quietly and not disrupting the proceedings, then there’s no legal basis to object.”
The tinge of racial tension in the trial of Arbery’s killers has been present from the start. During opening statements, prosecutors for the state of Georgia argued that incorrect assumptions—racist ones, in fact—caused the three men to chase Arbery down after they suspected he’d burglarized a home in their neighborhood of Satilla Shores. They wanted to detain him for a “citizen’s arrest” until law enforcement arrived, but after a struggle, Travis shot and killed the 25-year-old Black man.
The defense, on the other hand, has tried to ignore the racial aspects of the case—despite successfully creating a jury of 11 white people and just one Black person. Attorneys for the trio of white men, who have pleaded not guilty by reason of self-defense, have said they were only reacting to the facts and the threats in front of them.
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