• Fri. Jun 2nd, 2023


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‘So Much Hatred’: Jury Foreman Shaken by Evidence in Arbery Trial

ATLANTA — After each day of jury service in the hate crimes trial of the men who murdered Ahmaud Arbery, Marcus Ransom went to his hotel room and prayed.

“Honestly, I just prayed for everyone,” Mr. Ransom said. “For the jury. For Ahmaud’s family. Even the defendants.”

Mr. Ransom, the foreman, was the only Black man on the jury, and much like Mr. Arbery, he was raised in modest circumstances in a Deep South community where he learned what it feels like to be racially profiled. He suffered through his share of specious police stops and ugly looks from restaurant servers.

But Mr. Ransom’s mother insisted that he never judge people by the color of their skin. And the judge in the Arbery case insisted that the jurors hear the evidence with clear heads and open minds.

Mr. Ransom, 35, said he tried to hew to those principles every day he was in the jury box, even as he heard evidence that the defendants considered Black people to be animals or savages, and even as he was forced to watch video that showed Mr. Arbery bleeding on the pavement and gasping for breath as the three white defendants declined to offer him comfort or aid.

It was not easy. Mr. Ransom cried when the video footage was played in court. He cried when federal prosecutors showed another video one of the defendants had shared with a friend that cruelly mocked a young Black boy as he danced.

He cried after handing over the verdict, which the clerk read aloud: Guilty, on all counts.

“Just seeing that it was so much hatred that they had, not only for Ahmaud, but to other people of the Black race,” Mr. Ransom said. “It was a lot to take in.”

On Monday evening, Mr. Ransom spoke publicly about the case for the first time in an interview with The New York Times, describing his view of the evidence and the deliberations of the jurors. Their verdict last week brought an emphatic close to a two-year drama in which Americans were confronted with a killing of a Black man that echoed a time in the South when extrajudicial terror and violence against African Americans were rampant — and when the perpetrators often eluded justice.

A different fate awaits Gregory McMichael, his son Travis McMichael, and their neighbor William Bryan, the white men who chased Mr. Arbery through their neighborhood in February 2020. The men were found guilty of murder in state court in November, and given life sentences. The additional guilty verdicts in federal court, for hate crimes and attempted kidnapping, could mean that each man receives an additional life sentence.

Shortly after the verdict, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland thanked the jury and spoke of the trial, in the broader context of federal intervention in cases of violence and intimidation carried out by white supremacists “who assumed that they could operate outside the bounds of the law.”

But bringing justice to bear took its toll. Throughout the weeklong trial, Mr. Arbery’s father, Marcus Arbery Sr., closely watched Mr. Ransom, the man publicly known only as Juror No. 150, in the jury box. Mr. Arbery said he could see how the violence, the indifference and the racism were hurting him.

“Ahmaud was a Black man, I am a Black man, that juror was a Black man,” Mr. Arbery said. “We move through the world the same in a lot of ways. Because Ahmaud was Black and he is Black, he probably knows that this could have been him. He probably said to himself, ‘This could have been me.’”

Mr. Ransom grew up in Columbus, Ga., roughly 250 miles from Brunswick, Ga., where the trial was held. Mr. Arbery was killed just outside of Brunswick in a suburb called Satilla Shores. Mr. Ransom had been a “knucklehead” as a young man, he said, but never a lawbreaker, and he got serious as he got older. His mother’s Christian faith rubbed off on him, and she pushed him into college.

After seeing many of his friends end up in trouble with the law, he became a juvenile probation officer, thinking it was the best way he could make a difference.

“I really learned that not everyone was treated equally,” he said. Sometimes, he said, it was because of race. But sometimes it was a class issue.

He received his jury summons in December, instructing him to show up in Brunswick, a three-hour drive from his home. He arrived in federal court on Feb. 8, immaculately dressed in a blazer and tie — the uniform he would wear to court every day, and the sartorial armor he regularly uses to ward off the sort of racist assumptions that fueled the attack on Mr. Arbery, who was running through Satilla Shores on the day he died in a T-shirt, shorts and a pair of sneakers.

“A lot of people judge you by sight before they hear the words coming out of your mouth,” Mr. Ransom said. “I know I’m judged first for being a Black man. So let me level the playing field.”

At jury selection, he told the court that he was a social worker, and that he knew only a little about the Arbery case. In the interview, he said he had been shocked by the details of the killing and the viral video of Travis McMichael pulling the trigger of his shotgun. But he did not delve deeply into the case because he was dealing at the time with the death of his grandmother.

Soon the jury was finalized, and Mr. Ransom found himself listening to the opening statement of Bobbi Bernstein, a lawyer with the Justice Department’s civil rights division. She said that the government would show that Travis McMichael had referred to Black people as “criminals” and “subhuman savages,” that his father had disparaged a civil rights leader, and that Mr. Bryan had used racial slurs.

It was part of a torrent of revelations that showed that the men’s racism was deeply entrenched. Mr. Bryan was revolted by the fact that his daughter had fallen in love with a Black man. Travis McMichael wished violence upon Black people on numerous occasions.

Mr. Ransom said these were not the revelations that wounded him. Nor did they surprise him. When he was in his 20s, he said, a white man quarreled with him at a gas station and called him a Black monkey. “I’ve experienced racism on different levels,” Mr. Ransom said. “Did it upset me or get me mad? Not really, because I’ve experienced this pretty much throughout my life. I’ve become numb to it almost.”

What was worse, he said, were the other details that emerged: The indifference the men showed to Mr. Arbery after Travis McMichael shot him, and he lay dying. Mr. McMichael’s unfounded assumption that Mr. Arbery had stolen a gun from his car. His father’s attribution of criminal acts to Mr. Arbery that he did not commit.

Mr. Ransom said he was particularly appalled by Mr. Bryan’s decision to help the McMichaels chase Mr. Arbery even though he knew nothing about what had precipitated the pursuit in the first place. All that Mr. Bryan, who filmed the encounter, knew was that a Black man was being chased by two white men. Why would he assume that there was a legitimate reason to chase Mr. Arbery? Why did he not conclude that Mr. Arbery needed saving, not chasing?

Mr. Ransom also said he was struck by the impassive looks on the faces of the three men, who watched the proceedings in the company of their lawyers and did not take the stand. Mr. Ransom spent a week looking for signs of remorse on their faces. He said he never saw it.

Over the course of the week, the jurors — three Black, eight white and one Hispanic — ate lunch together each day. Their exchanges were cordial, but superficial, as they were instructed not to discuss the case until the deliberation period.

After closing arguments, the jurors returned to the room, where they quickly and unanimously chose Mr. Ransom as the jury foreman. “No one really voiced exactly why,” he said. But he said he could feel what they were thinking — that he was the sole Black man in the room, and that it made sense for him to lead them.

The deliberations, he said, were cordial, businesslike and devoid of drama. No one made the case that the men were innocent. No one mounted a passionate challenge to the idea that, as the jury instructions put it, the men had gone after Mr. Arbery “because of Mr. Arbery’s race and color.”

They moved quickly through the charges, including two weapons charges against the McMichaels, drawing up lists of evidentiary details that supported each one. They completed the bulk of the work by the first evening of deliberations and wrapped up the next morning.

After the clerk read the verdict, the judge asked the jurors if it was true and correct. Mr. Ransom felt the tears well in his eyes as he told her yes. The killing of Mr. Arbery told one story about the country. But here, he thought, was an alternative that was also true — one that made him think “that we as a nation, you know, we’re moving in the right direction.”

“Wrong is wrong and right is right,” he said. “No matter what it is, you’ve got to have consequences. No one is above laws.”