Arbery Jury Shows 'System Can Work Even in Sensitive and Dramatic Cases': Former Prosecutor

The case of Ahmaud Arbery has become a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement and over the last two and half weeks, as the trial unfolded, race took center stage both inside and outside the courtroom.

On Wednesday, the three defendants were found guilty, delivering what many saw as justice for the Arbery family and a milestone for racial justice in the U.S.

Although pressure for a guilty verdict had been built up over the last year and a half, legal experts said the rulings were made by the jury were based on the evidence and witness testimony and rather than on media coverage or the political climate surrounding the case.

"The jury found no ambiguity about what they saw and heard," former federal prosecutor and former elected state attorney Michael McAuliffe told Newsweek. "Their verdicts show that the jury system can work even in sensitive and dramatic cases involving race and death."

"The country can have confidence that the jury spoke in a unanimous voice of accountability based on the evidence," he added.

Before the trial began, some raised doubts about the almost all-white jury that was selected to decide whether Travis and Greg McMichael and William "Roddie" Bryan, who are white, were guilty of murdering Arbery, a Black man.

There were 11 white jurors and one Black juror.

In response to the verdict, Reverend Al Sharpton said Wednesday's decision reflected the nation's stance on the racial justice movement: "A jury of 11 whites and one Black, in the Deep South, stood up in the courtroom and said that Black lives do matter."

"At a time when some think our country is in such divide, this case clearly shows the opposite," defense attorney Thomas Nagel told Newsweek. "Eleven of the 12 jurors were white. There was no white supremacy, or issue of whose life matter more. This case restores faith in our judicial system regardless of a person's race, religion, color or creed."

Ahmaud Arbery Guilty Verdict Black Lives Matter
Demonstrators march near the Glynn County Courthouse after the adjournment of daily court proceedings in the trial for the killers of Ahmaud Arbery on November 18, 2021 in Brunswick, Georgia. Sean Rayford/Stringer

Legal experts say that while the optics of the courtroom seemed to suggest jurors affirmed that racial justice have reached boiling point in this country, legally, their verdicts confirmed that the defense's self-defense argument was not enough to justify an acquittal.

"Laying aside the racial justice movement, I believe the jury reached the correct verdict given the legal definitions and standards that the judge charged the jury on," criminal defense attorney Olga Izmaylova told Newsweek.

She explained that the shorter deliberation time signaled that most of the jurors had already began leaning towards a conviction shortly after deliberations began.

Izmaylova said that while self-defense is legal in Georgia, the factual circumstances presented in this case were not enough to prove that argument and because the defense did not present any other explanation for Arbery's death, the only explanation given to the jury was not enough.

"The court's instruction to the jury was to render a verdict based on the law and the evidence," criminal defense lawyer Benson Varghese told Newsweek. "What you do know when a jury is out that long is they are doing what they are supposed to - working through the evidence, the law, and making their best arguments as to what they believe the verdict should be."

"Those secret, unpublicized moments are Americans at their finest, weighing the evidence, and holding prosecutors to the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt," he continued.

Nagel said he believes the most critical element that prevented jurors from being convinced that the defendants were not guilty was the video of the shooting captured by Bryan.

"The video was the most damning evidence," Nagel said. "Bryan sealed everyone's fate by videotaping the shooting. Without it, deliberations would have taken longer and the end result may have been different."

Even the defense attorneys for the McMichaels, who said they would move to appeal the sentencing against their clients, noted that the verdict reached by the jury deserved to be respected.

"That is a very disappointing and sad verdict for myself and for Bob and for our team, but we also recognize that this is a day of celebration for the Arbery family," Jason Sheffield said outside the courthouse on Wednesday.

"We cannot tear our eyes away from the way they feel about this. They feel they have gotten justice today. We respect that. We honor that. Because we honor this jury trial system," he added.

Update 11/25/21 8:45 a.m. ET- This story was updated with comments from Nagel.

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