25 October 2021

Ahmaud Arbery Case: Jury Selecti

One of the most infuriating parts of trying to cover the trial of the three men who killed Ahmaud Arbery is that individual questioning of the jurors is shielded from the public.

When each panel of 20 potential jurors is called before the court, lawyers ask general questions, asking the potential jurors to raise their hand if they agree or disagree with a particular statement. If you are lucky you can catch this part of the trial on Court TV, or a streaming service.

Then, potential jurors in this pool are taken to another room individually and questioned outside the hearing of the other potential jurors. The problem is that the public has no access to this second, individual questioning. Reporters (2 at the time) are allowed to witness this part of the trial, but they are only taking “notes.” This has resulted in a few quotes and a little bit of demographic information for some of the jurors. So, the reporters are not making a transcript, they are taking “notes,” jotting down facts they deem important. As far as I know, the public does not have access to the notes, only other reporters.

So, one of the most important parts of the trial, the selection of the jury, is being essentially held in private outside the view of the public. 

At the beginning of the jury selection, Glynn County, Ga, the county where the trial is being held, made a decision to hold the trial in a normal courtroom in the downtown courthouse.  This courtroom is not large enough for a high profile trial.  And, because of social distancing, the county has limited the number of people in the courtroom.

Defense attorneys tried to make the entire jury questioning process secret and held away from the public.  Reports are that the judge in the case made a “compromise” by allowing reporters, two at the time, to sit in the courtroom while individual juror questioning is being conducted. 

The reporters are rotated in and out of the courtroom so no reporter is witnessing even an entire day of questioning.  I am guessing that they are limited to a couple of hours at the time.

This arrangement serves the interests of journalists, since they can file stories as if they were witnessing the process, and they only have to report a small snippet of what is going on since that’s all they are witnessing and all they are allowed in terms of air time.

It does not, however, serve the interests of the public.  First, because reporters are being treated as if this is a favor, they are going to err on the side of not reporting anything they think might get them kicked out of doing the coverage.  Second, they are witnessing only a small snippet of the trial and cannot therefore form impressions of trends that may be relevant had they been allowed to witness the entire day.  Third, they are either not allowed or not reporting any information about body language or facial reactions.  One of the jury experts on Court TV noted that the answers of the jurors were not nearly as important to her as were the pauses, the body language, and the facial expressions of jurors.