By Devon M. Sayers, Alta Spells and Christina Maxouris, CNN
A defense attorney for one of the three White men charged in Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery’s killing objected this week to nationally recognized civil rights leaders attending the trial to support the victim’s family.
“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,” attorney Kevin Gough said Thursday in court in Brunswick, Georgia.
Gough the next day offered “my apologies to anyone who might have inadvertently been offended” by the remarks.
“I will let the court know that if my statements yesterday were overly broad, I will follow up with a more specific motion on Monday putting those concerns in the proper context. And my apologies to anyone who might have inadvertently been offended,” he said Friday.
Judge Timothy Walmsley on Thursday said he would not “blanketly exclude members of the public from this courtroom,” as long as no one disrespected the court’s process or became a distraction.
Race has continued to play a central role in the trial unfolding in majority-White Glynn County after the 2020 killing of Arbery, 25, helped fuel nationwide protests that year over racial injustice.
Following a long and contentious jury selection process, Walmsley last week said the defense had appeared to be discriminatory in selecting the jurors but allowed the case to go forward — with only one Black member on the 12-person panel.
Just days prior, Gough had complained that older White men from the South without four-year college degrees, “euphemistically known as ‘Bubba’ or ‘Joe Six Pack,'” seemed to be underrepresented in the pool of potential jurors that had turned up.
The Rev. Al Sharpton joined Arbery’s parents Wednesday and led a prayer vigil outside the Glynn County Courthouse, asking for a just verdict in the case and calling Arbery’s killing “a lynching in the 21st century.”
While the country has seen some positive milestones for the Black community, such as electing former President Barack Obama and Vice President Kamala Harris, “you still can’t jog through Brunswick without being shot down, like you are a suspect, only because of the color of your skin,” Sharpton said.
Sharpton was also in the small courtroom on Wednesday.
‘We want to keep politics out of this case’
The judge on Thursday told Gough, who represents William “Roddie” Bryan Jr., that he was aware Sharpton would be in court, apparently taking the place of an Arbery family member, and that he did not have an objection as long as there were no disruptions.
Gough said Thursday he had “nothing personally against” Sharpton, adding, “We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here or other Jesse Jackson, whoever was in here earlier this week, sitting with the victim’s family trying to influence a jury in this case.”
Civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson has not been seen at the courthouse since the start of the trial. CNN has reached out to him.
“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, and we want to keep politics out of this case,” Gough said.
Sharpton calls on faith leaders to meet at courthouse
Sharpton called the attorney’s comments “arrogant insensitivity” which “underscores the disregard for the value of the human life lost and the grieving of a family in need spiritual and community support.”
“My attendance yesterday and in the days to come is not disruptive in any way and was at the invitation of the family of Ahmaud Arbery who have stated that publicly,” Sharpton said in a prepared statement Thursday.
“This objection was clearly pointed at me and a disregard to the fact that a mother father sitting in a courtroom with 3 men that murdered their son do not deserve the right to have someone present to give spiritual strength to bear this pain. This is pouring salt into their wounds.”
Sharpton’s National Action Network issued a statement Friday calling for “clergy across ecumenical lines” to meet Sharpton next Thursday outside the courthouse where the trial is taking place.
Sharpton asked faith leaders to stand with him, along with Arbery’s parents and their attorneys, at noon on that day.
Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael and Bryan — are accused of chasing Arbery in vehicles and killing him in that neighborhood on February 23, 2020. Defense attorneys have said their clients were trying to conduct a lawful citizen’s arrest of Arbery, whom they suspected of burglary.
Black pastor says attorney is ‘intimidated by the truth’
Prominent Black pastor and social activist the Rev. William J. Barber II, who was in Brunswick earlier Thursday, said he left a member of his organization there to be with Arbery’s family and called Sharpton to have more ministers come down in the coming days.
“He can say whatever he wants to,” he told CNN in reference to Gough’s comments. “He has to understand, for me, I’m not a minister; I’m a pastor first. I pastor people. I’ve had to go to families when they’ve had people killed and I sit in courtrooms.”
When asked about Gough’s objections that their presence may be intimidating the jury, Barber said the defense attorney is “intimidated by the truth.”
“This is ultimately about the truth, and to suggest that we are the intimidating ones when this case is about White men who were riding around with guns … shooting an unarmed Black man … it just shows how disjointed this case is,” Barber said. “Truth is intimidating for people who want to run a lie.”
Arbery’s mother said, “I don’t think Gough is really up to do the right thing. So he’s, he’s willing to eliminate anything that’s right. So it doesn’t surprise me at all.”
“I think that if the jury takes the evidence that the state presents, that we will get justice for Ahmaud,” Wanda Cooper-Jones said.
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CNN’s Niah Humphrey, Pamela Kirkland and Delano Massey contributed to this report.