The Rev. Al Sharpton has planned a vigil for Thursday, at which 100 or more Black pastors are "to stand in solidarity and prayer” with the family of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was fatally shot in southern Georgia.
The vigil will take place outside the Glynn County Courthouse in Brunswick, Ga., where three men are on trial for murdering Arbery following a confrontation on Feb. 23, 2020, in the nearby Satilla Shores neighborhood.
Race and racism are key issues in the trial. One of the defense attorneys opened up the floodgates of criticism after suggesting Sharpton and other popular Black figures who were sitting in the gallery could be viewed as “improper” and taint the jury.
Last week, Kevin Gough, who represents William “Roddie” Bryan, one of the defendants, complained about the presence of Black pastors at the trial. He said the high-profile members of the African American community “could be, consciously or unconsciously, an attempt to pressure or influence the jury.”
Bryan, along with Travis McMichael and his father, Gregory McMichael, are co-defendants in the case.
“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here ... sitting with the victim’s family trying to influence the jury in this case,” Gough said.
According to a National Action Network announcement, Sharpton now expects more than 250 Black pastors to attend the vigil, or “prayer wall,” including civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King III. The vigil would take place at noon, typically when court goes into recess.
Sharpton was in town last week to host a prayer vigil alongside attorneys Ben Crump and Lee Merritt, who are representing the Arbery family.
Gough apologized after his comments made waves outside the courtroom.
“I will let the court know, 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.”
Gough followed through with that motion on Monday, calling for a mistrial, expressing once again the view that the atmosphere inside and outside the courtroom has deprived his client, Bryan, of a fair trial.
This time he turned his attention to the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who appeared with Arbery's parents.
“In other circumstances, I think everybody would be happy to have their picture taken, maybe get an autograph, but in the context of this trial, we object to his presence in the public gallery inside of the courtroom,” Gough said.
“We note that there is a jury assembly room capable of holding, depending on how we socially distance, several hundred people where these proceedings are being televised live in real time. The issue I brought up previously is, how many pastors does the Arbery family have?”
The attorneys for the other two defendants joined in the call for a mistrial.
Judge Timothy Walmsley denied the motion and told Gough his comments were “reprehensible.”
“It’s almost as if you’re just trying to continue this for purposes other than just bringing it to the court’s attention,” Walmsley said Monday.
The three defendants are accused of chasing Arbery, who they claim they suspected of burglary. The resulting altercation, caught on video by Bryan, shows Travis McMichael getting into a scuffle with Arbery and shooting him. The three have also been charged with violating federal hate crime laws.
In addition to concerns about the presence of Sharpton and other Black pastors, the defense argued that weeping from Arbery’s mother, Wanda Cooper-Jones, was grounds for a mistrial.
“There were several jurors that did look over,” said Jason Sheffield, Travis McMichael’s lawyer. “Their faces changed. The emotion, the sympathy that they felt, and to see then Mr. Rev. Jackson, whose autographed picture hung in my mother’s law office for two decades, who is the ultimate figure of fairness and justice and equality. To see that, I don’t think it gets any higher in terms of the impression that that makes.”
Gregory McMichael’s co-counsel, Laura Hogue, also weighed in. “Having jurors hear and see and visualize the emotion, and now to be comforted by someone for whom respect abounds — we’re in a very difficult position now with this jury to have seen and felt and heard that,” she said.