The lawyer for one of the three white men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, in southern Georgia, is fighting to have civil rights leader Reverend Jesse Jackson removed from the courtroom.
After failing to have Rev Jackson removed while arguing his presence could influence the jury, attorney Kevin Gough moved on to note that Rev Jackson’s mask was below his nose, despite not wearing a mask himself.
“Your Honour, I would note that the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s mask is down below his nose,” a maskless Mr Gough said, standing beside several other maskless people. “I’m not a big believer in masks, but again, make that part of the record. I’m sure the court can see what I’m talking about.”
Mr Gough tried to take similar action last week when he tried to stop any “Black pastors” from attending the trial after another civil rights leader, Reverend Al Sharpton, was seen sitting with Mr Arbery’s parents in the public gallery of the courtroom, Reuters reported.
When the jury had left the room, Mr Gough made an objection to “an icon in the civil rights movement” sitting next to Wanda Cooper-Jones, Mr Arbery’s mother. He said the presence of the pastor could influence the members of the jury.
“How many pastors does the Arbery family have?” he said after seeing Rev Jackson in the courtroom. “We had the Rev Al Sharpton here earlier… last week. I’m not keeping track, but I don’t know who Rev Jackson’s pastoring here.”
“The Arbery family is giving up seats in the public gallery so that these gentlemen may be present,” the lawyer added. “The seats in the public gallery of a courtroom are not like courtside seats at a Lakers game.”
The lawyer for William Bryan said he worried the pastors’ presence could be “consciously or unconsciously an attempt to pressure or influence the jury”.
Judge Timothy Walmsley appeared to be annoyed at Mr Gough’s objection, which the judge rejected. He said the ruling from last week, that the court wouldn’t ban anyone from entering a public courtroom, was to remain in effect. He added that he hadn’t been aware of Rev Jackson’s presence until Mr Gough made his objection.
Judge Walmsley said that it was strange that Mr Gough repeatedly argued against the presence of Black pastors in the courtroom. He said he was “done talking about it”.
“At this point, I’m not exactly sure what you’re doing,” the judge added. “It’s almost as if you’re just trying to keep continuing this for purposes other than just bringing it to the court’s attention and I find that objectionable.”
The defence was cross-examining a Georgia state investigator who had interviewed one of the three defendants in the trial when Rev Jackson was seen showing his support for the family of Mr Arbery.
Rev Jackson was seen entering the Glynn County Courthouse on Monday alongside Marcus Arbery Sr, the father of Mr Arbery, and the Transformative Justice Coalition’s Barbara Arnwine, CNN reported.
“If we’re going to start 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,” Mr Gough said on Thursday.
“We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here … sitting with the victim’s family trying to influence a jury in this case,” he added.
Mr Gough later apologised for the comments.
“I will let the court know that 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,” he said on Friday. “And my apologies to anyone who might have inadvertently been offended.”
On Monday morning, ahead of testimony, Mr Gough asked Judge Walmsley to “have the sheriff or bailiffs or whoever the court directs, identify and keep track of the individuals in the public gallery in the courtroom”, but the judge rejected the motion.
Travis McMichael is charged, alongside his father Gregory McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan Jr with malice and felony murder following the 23 February 2020 killing of Mr Arbery. The defendants have also been charged with aggravated assault, false imprisonment, and criminal attempt to commit a felony. All three have pleaded not guilty. They could all be sentenced to life in prison without parole if they are convicted.
The family of Mr Arbery say he was jogging when he was shot and killed, while the defence says the three men were trying to conduct a citizen’s arrest, leading to Travis McMichael shooting Mr Arbery in self-defence.
Lawyer Jason Sheffield, representing Travis McMichael, said on Friday that Mr Gough’s comments were “totally asinine” and “ridiculous”.
“In no way do we want to exclude anybody from this process,” Mr Sheffield added.