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Arbery Verdict Impressions

One take on the Arbery trial comes down to the glass is half empty and what remains is poisoned. The guilty verdict is downplayed and focus shifted to the local prosecutor who allegedly used her position to shield McMichael père et fils from being charged immediately after the shooting, the likelihood that the accused would have gone scot-free had video not surfaced, the selection of a nearly all-white jury whose racial makeup was not representative of the community, and the prosecution team's decision not to introduce race and racism into a case they nonetheless won. The foregone conclusion is that the judicial system is irredeemably racist, and in that is but a reflection of American society, culture, politics, everything.

"[S]ome experts argued that the prosecutors’ choice not to mention race in front of a nearly all-white jury suggests that progress on racial justice has been marginal.

​​“A lot of people in our country adhere to the myth of colorblindness. They think to talk about race makes you racist, so they’re afraid to talk about race. The whitewashing of this trial needs to be addressed,” Justin Hansford, a professor at the Howard University School of Law, said. (Cineas, Lawyers left racism out)

Hansford said that the lesson he took from the trial is that attorneys can use tropes like the reference to dirty toenails to win freedom for their clients. From this he concludes that the trial makes the teaching of subjects like critical race theory more urgent. Surely a better lesson is that the trope was rejected by a jury composed of eleven white people and only one black person.

Georgetown University Law Center professor Tiffany Jeffers notes that we expect juries to resemble the communities they are representing. Fair enough. Then she cannot resist muddying her argument with presumptions about whiteness as a race and an ideology when she goes on to say, "Whiteness is a race. It’s an ideology, and there is bias associated with it, but we don’t have those discussions. All of the burden is shifted onto Blackness and any potential bias Black people have because of their race. But no one talks about the potential bias of white jurors."

In other quarters the nation's response to the outcome has been characterized as a collective sigh of relief. Jeffers is off base when she says that no one talks about the potential bias of white jurors. Many of us were fearful that a nearly all-white jury in the Deep South would not be swayed by what we saw as clear and convincing evidence accompanied by a sound legal case presented by the prosecution. Thoughtful observers were quick to qualify judgment that in the end the system worked. The crucial role played by the fortuitous surfacing of the video should disabuse us of any complacency in that regard. The justice system remains flawed. Racism and racial inequity remain features of the national landscape to be reckoned with.

Greg McMichael, 65, and Travis McMichael, 35, and their neighbor William "Roddie" Bryan, 52, all faced the same nine criminal counts in Georgia state court: one count of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment and one count of criminal attempt to commit a felony. They pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Jurors found all three men guilty of nearly all the counts against them. Travis McMichael was found guilty of all nine counts. Greg McMichael was found not guilty of one count of malice murder, and Bryan was found not guilty of one count of malice murder, one count of felony murder and one count of aggravated assault. (Kennedy, Diaz, 3 white men are found guilty)

The verdict is a modest precedent, as is the verdict in the trial for the murder of George Floyd. The fact that a nearly all-white jury in the Deep South reached that verdict is another modest precedent. A former Brunswick Judicial Circuit District Attorney was indicted on a felony count of violating her oath of office and the misdemeanor charge of hindering a law enforcement officer (Bynum, Ex-prosecutor indicted). The former DA was defeated in her bid for reelection last year after a decade as top prosecutor in the circuit, a defeat she attributed to controversy over Arbery's death.

These developments do not deliver us to the promised land of liberty and justice for all. Perhaps though I can allow them to kindle modest hope tempered by recognition that things all around are an unholy mess. A small, imperfect win is still better than no win at all.


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