Credit: Glynn County Detention Center via AP
As the Arbery case looms, here's what Glynn County's doing to prep amid the COVID-19 pandemic
It will be more than 600 days since the killing of Ahmaud Arbery when those charged with murder in the shooting death finally go to trial.
The 30-second video of Arbery’s death in February 2020 while jogging through a neighborhood near his coastal Georgia hometown of Brunswick sent shockwaves not only across state but through the entire country. Still, it took more than two months for the white men accused in the killing to be arrested.
The trial is now set to start Oct. 18, following a lengthy delay brought on by the coronavirus pandemic that shut down the in-person court system and caused a bottleneck of cases.
Local leaders said the community is anxious for the trial to begin — and for the healing process to move forward.
But just last month, Glynn County’s COVID-19 spread was among the highest in the nation. Local hospitals were full and the state sent a coalition of National Guard members in an effort to bolster the health care system.
Despite a recent decline in cases, rates remain high and the fate of the long-awaited trial uncertain.
The court proceeding is expected to draw the attention of national media and spark large demonstrations. Coupled with the upcoming University of Georgia-Florida football game in nearby Jacksonville, Fla., that is expected to bring thousands of young people to the area, the community is doing its best to prepare.
Former Georgia Supreme Court Chief Justice Harold Melton made the call to close and reopen Georgia’s court system during the pandemic and guided the state through the transition into virtual proceedings.
The decision for the trial to start as scheduled, he said, could come down to just days before, depending on whether the county’s COVID cases remain under control.
“Frankly, if something happened at any point up until the beginning of the trial or even during trial where you just had to pull away and shut it down — even temporarily — because of a COVID incident, then I know that they're prepared to do that,” Melton said.
According to Melton, Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley, who is presiding over the case, is in regular contact with the attorneys from both parties and monitoring coronavirus case rates.
The trial will look much different from jury trials before the pandemic. Hundreds of prospective jurors are set to gather in a recreational center and be screened in the courthouse in waves.
Melton said the court has a high level of responsibility for the jury, since it's asking the members to leave the safety of their homes and risk their health for the public good.
So, the jury will likely occupy most of the courtroom, Melton said, with some space for the victim’s and defendants' families. Aside from those close to the case, others will have to watch live streams from other rooms inside the courthouse or outside.
Melton worked to balance public safety and the responsibility of the courts as COVID surged across the Peach State during the initial months of the pandemic. Jury trials, especially of this magnitude, he said, must go on.
“Justice needs to continue to be served and sought after even in the midst of a pandemic, '' Melton said. “And so while there are certain things you can delay and reduce and downsize, ultimately you still have to deliver justice. And so then the question is, ‘How do you do that?’”
Defendants Travis and Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan are charged with murder, assault and other offenses in the killing. The three defendants, who are white, pursued Arbery, who was Black, through their neighborhood in February 2020.
Travis McMichael ultimately shot Arbery — a moment captured on cellphone video by Bryan that drew national outrage and calls for justice when it eventually surfaced.
The coastal community is yearning for that justice. But in Glynn County, the hope for closure has dragged amid the trial delays.
“You just never know what the outcome is going to be,” Glynn County Commissioner Allen Booker said. “But you just pray for justice in this case.”
Booker grew up with Arbery’s father in a working-class neighborhood. For “good people, honest folk who are hardworking,” he said, the weight of the eyes of the nation has taken a toll.
“To be thrust into the fishbowl like this, for something as tragic as losing your child, it's just difficult,” he said.
The commissioner said the death of Arbery left a stain on the community that they’re afraid won’t wash away.
“We are used to being looked at, but not for this reason. Folks come here for the beaches and to have fun,” he said. “To see something like this vicious murder happen to one of our young people … to see that happen and know that that kind of hatred is here, across the community, it really shook up some people.”
At the same time, COVID-19 has ravaged the community. Since the start of the pandemic, at least one in six Glynn County residents have been infected with the disease. The coastal health system has reported 288 deaths while the vaccination rate remains around 45%.
Booker said although the numbers are going down, the area is still on edge.
Local leaders have been working with law enforcement and state agencies to prepare for the wave of visitors for both the trial and the upcoming football game — but the preparations are not without a price.
“We are concerned that preparations may cause a run up to about $5 million and that we're not sure that's money we have to come up with locally,” he said. “We're not sure if there's going to be anybody that can be in pots of money from the federal state that can help us with this.”
The football game, dubbed the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party,” has long been a party scene for thousands of fans who flock to area beaches for two days of partying.
On St. Simons Island, it’s known as the “Frat Beach” party ahead of the game, held just over an hour away in Jacksonville. Fearing the festivities could be a COVID super spreader event, the Glynn County Commission recently banned alcohol and eliminated food trucks. To discourage mega crowds, the county reduced the number of portable toilets from 100 to 25.
The local hospital system, too, is planning to tap into its already strained resource supply to curb COVID spread during the trial.
Michael Scherneck, CEO of the Southeast Georgia Health System, said while the declining case numbers are a hopeful sign, the transmission rate in the county is still high.
The medical provider is ready to allocate extra staff and plenty of masks to hand out at demonstrations — some already scheduled.
“It will be important for our community to continue to pull together, to stay together as this trial comes to fruition,” Scherneck said. “At this stage, it's been a long time coming.”
As of now, the trial is scheduled to go on as planned — and a closure for the shaken community hopefully follows.