An unexpected motion stunned the courtroom on Thursday during the trial for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick.
Defense attorney Kevin Gough, who is representing defendant William “Roddie” Bryan, suggested the Arbery family should not be able to have any more black pastors coming in and supporting them, even though he admitted he didn’t realize the Rev. Al Sharpton joined the family until court ended Wednesday night.
“And if their pastor’s Al Sharpton right now, that’s fine. But that’s it. We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here,” Gough said.
Sharpton said in a statement that Gough’s remarks showed “arrogant insensitivity.”
Gough’s request to Judge Timothy Walmsley stunned those inside and outside the courtroom, drawing immediate scorn on social media.
“We want to keep politics out of this case, so I’m asking the court to take appropriate steps to make sure that the gallery, which is already limited in this case, isn’t being utilized for a purpose that could be viewed as improper,” Gough said.
Gough suggested the presence of nationally recognized pastors could be seen as intimidating or pressuring. Other attorneys quickly responded.
“It’s a reminder of the court’s previous instructions to keep outside influence out,” Bob Rubin, defense for Travis McMichael, said.
“It’s a public courtroom and I have no idea how Reverend Al Sharpton appeared to be … So, the state has no part in that whatsoever,” prosecutor Linda Dunikoski said.
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Gough continued on.
“If a bunch of folks came in here dressed like Colonel Sanders with white masks sitting in the back, that wouldn’t be allowed,” Gough said.
The court had already ruled the only way someone would be barred from the courtroom is if they became a distraction.
“The fact that no one else even noticed he was in there means that everyone else complied with this court’s ruling,” Walmsley said.
Action News Jax Law and Safety Expert Dale Carson, who has years of experience in the courtroom, said how well-known someone is shouldn’t keep them from coming into a courtroom.
“Someone’s notoriety really shouldn’t have any impact on whether they come into the courtroom or not,” Carson said. “This is a public trial. So what that means as part of the safety of a public trial is there’s going to be a fair outcome. So people in the gallery are free to come and go as long as they don’t disrupt the court proceedings.”
Outside the courthouse, civil rights leaders called Gough out as soon as they heard.
“I think Gough has a race problem,” Barbara Arnwine of the Transformative Justice Coalition said.
Others pointed out how isolated Gough’s argument was.
“There’s not just Black pastors that are here. There are rabbis that are here, there are white pastors that are here, if he’s not indicating that they are intimidating to the jury? That they are just providing faith and support for the family,” Daryl Jones of the Transformative Justice Coalition said.
Arnwine, representing Arbery’s father Marcus, said each Black pastor who is at the courthouse serves a purpose.
“All of these people, pastors, are praying with the family, talking with the family, speaking out for the family ... That is their right,” Arnwine said.
Walmsley quickly shut Gough’s suggestion down.
“I am not going to blanketly exclude members of the public from this courtroom,” Walmsley said.
Gough didn’t file an official motion but did tell the court he would if he saw the presence of Black pastors as an issue. But their presence is not stopping -- the Transformative Justice Coalition said next week, the Rev. Jesse Jackson would be joining the family in Brunswick.
Gough said Friday in court “my apologies to those who may have inadvertently been offended” by his remarks.
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