Tensions Flare in Ahmaud Arbery Murder Trial Over Presence of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Courtroom

Jesse Jackson with Ahmaud Arbery's mother.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson in court with Wanda Cooper-Jones, the mother of Ahmaud Arbery.Getty

Judge in Ahmaud Arbery murder trial refuses defense attorney's request to ban Jesse Jackson from courtroom.

Tensions boiled over Monday in the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial as the judge refused mistrial requests from the defense attorneys of three white men accused of killing the Black jogger. The lawyers alleged jurors were tainted by seeing Arbery's parents sitting with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

“There is no reason for these prominent icons in the civil rights movement to be here,” defense attorney  Kevin Gough said Monday. “With all due respect, I would suggest, whether intended or not, that inevitably a juror is going to be influenced by their presence in the courtroom.”

Morning testimony was derailed by arguments outside the jury’s presence. Superior Court Judge Timothy Walmsley refused to have Jackson removed, saying no group would be excluded from his courtroom.

Controversy erupted last week when Gough objected to the Rev. Al Sharpton being present at the proceedings. "We don’t want anymore Black pastors coming in here," the lawyer said.

On Monday, the judge called Gough's comment "reprehensible."

Walmsley warned the attorneys their own statements may have lured some high-profile figures to the courthouse.

“I will say that is directly in response, Mr. Gough, to statements you made, which I find reprehensible,” the judge said.

Jackson told reporters outside the courthouse Friday that he came to Georgia's coastal town of Brunswick to support Arbery's family. 

“As the judge said, it was my constitutional right to be there,” Jackson said. “It’s my moral obligation to be there.”

The case has been racially charged since its inception.

After the court reconvened last Thursday following a lunch break, Gough, who represents defendant William "Roddie" Bryan Jr., spoke about Sharpton's presence. 

"There’s only so many pastors they can have," Gough said. "If they have Pastor Al Sharpton right now, then that’s fine. That’s it. We don’t want anymore Black pastors coming in here or Jessie Jackson, or whoever was in here earlier this week, sitting with the victim’s family trying to influence a jury in this case," the attorney told the court.

Social media blew up with posts accusing Gough of making racist statements. On Friday he issued an apology of sorts, saying in a statement, "My apologies to anyone who might have inadvertently been offended."

Gough's remarks to the court were made outside the presence of jurors. He complained against what he called "A precedent, where we're going to bring high-profile members of the African American community into the courtroom to sit with the family during the trial in the presence of the jury.

      "I believe that's intimidating and it's an attempt to pressure." he said.

      The three defendants, and 11 members of the jury, are all white. Sharpton, who has supported Arbery's parents, sat in the back of the courtroom Thursday. The judge said he had been made aware in advance of Sharpton's presence, and that it caused no disruption in the proceedings.

      Sharpton in a statement said Gough’s remarks showed “arrogant insensitivity.”

      “I respect the defense attorney doing his job,” Sharpton said, “but this is beyond defending your client, it is insulting the family of the victim.”

      Arbery, 25, who was Black, was shot to death in February 2020 as he ran through a suburban Glynn County neighborhood on a Sunday morning. Father and son Greg McMichael, 65, and Travis McMichael, 35, and neighbor William Bryan, 52, are all accused of murder

      Greg McMichael told investigators his son fired in self-defense. The attorneys for the accused have said in court their clients were trying to perform a citizen's arrest on Arbery. Travis McMichael's lawyer said his client feared for his life when he fired his shotgun.

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