BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Juror fears of public exposure -- a frequent issue in the trial of three men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery -- surfaced again Thursday when the judge received a note from a worried juror.
“How much can the media talk about or describe us?” the note began.
Judge Timothy Walmsley declined to read the entire note aloud -- attorneys gathered around his bench to read it – but summarized the message, saying, “Apparently they just noticed media writing or taking notes.”
Due to limited seating and COVID precautions, just two pool reporters are allowed into court each day. Their reporting is conveyed to all media outlets covering the case.
Seven members of the 15-member jury expressed concerns during jury selection about either personal repercussions for serving or community backlash to a verdict. More than once, jurors or potential jurors have complained to the court that they were identified by friends or coworkers based on media descriptions of them.
On the third day of jury selection, Walmsley said he was “publicly admonishing the media not to release the personal information of any potential juror," including their place of employment, age, children or residence. He said he would consider limiting media access to proceedings if pool reporters did not follow his instructions.
Reacting to the note Thursday, Walmsley said he hasn't seen stories that violate his directive, but he did cite a recent USA Today article that included more detail than most, including possibly identifiable professions.
Walmsley said he “parsed” the story and asked staff members to review it, “to see whether it truly violated my order -- and I’m not sure that it does. It comes as close to the line as I think you can, but it doesn’t have any personally descriptive information.”
Defense attorney Kevin Gough said the note itself indicated there was a problem and asked the judge to amend his order to further restrict the information media could report.
“The primary concern here is for the jurors to be secure in their work,” Gough said. “Obviously, the fact that this information is out there is concerning, at least to some.”
Gough suggested jurors could possibly be identified by their hairstyle or tie color (information that has not appeared in any reporting) “that would allow someone to identify them either to or from their homes.”
Gough added that he once worked on a case “where a litigant was actually killed on their way to court,” adding, “now that this concern has been expressed, particularly when they're not sequestered, maybe this would be a case for the court to enter an amendment to the order that is more restrictive in terms of the descriptions of the jurors.”
Attorneys for Greg and Travis McMichael joined the oral motion.
The judge advised the defense team to “let me know what you are asking for in additional restrictive language from the court. I'll go ahead and consider it.” Walmsley added that “the defendants’ right to a fair trial is paramount for the court. ... I fully respect and understand the concern."
When the jury returned, Walmsley told them that he had limited “personally identifying” information from being reported, but said there is “obviously interest in this case and it’s being reported on.”
No written motion to further constrain the press has yet been filed.