Small-town hospitality prevailed in tense trial | Local news
Please and thank you. Sir and madam. Welcome. You all come back.
Glynn County Superior Court Clerk Ron Adams said those words came to residents of the Golden Isles about as naturally as holding a door for strangers or hitting the brakes with a nod and a smile to let an anonymous motorist get in the flow of traffic.
And in the end, he said, it was southern hospitality that prevailed during the six weeks of a racist murder trial that focused a nation’s eyes on the courthouse. County of Glynn and the small coastal Georgia community it serves.
Glynn County Sheriff Neal Jump and his deputies greeted the vehement protesters with handshakes and smiles, assuring them that the courthouse grounds were friendly to the First Amendment and that their emphatic expressions would be tolerated.
Where the country’s major cities have imploded in recent years due to clashes over searing social issues, a small coastal tourist community whose economy relies on welcoming visitors has simply done its best, said Adams.
âThe hospitality industry is our biggest industry and no one does it as well as we do,â Adams told The News. âHospitality is in our DNA. It’s our secret weapon. I think we took what could have been a really bad community event and I think we handled it as well as we could. I think everyone approached it with a sense of brotherhood and cooperation.
Many feared the opposite would happen as visceral racial and violent elements of the trial came to light during the trial from mid-October to the end of November. National news networks lined the steps of the courthouse daily, as did crowds of visitors and local protesters. Prominent civil rights clergymen such as Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Jesse Jackson have led daily rallies on these same courthouse steps.
But the trial ended on November 24 with a predominantly white jury finding three white men guilty of murder for their role in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was gunned down while running in a public street in Satilla Shores on February 23, 2020.
The crowd of hundreds gathered outside the courthouse for the verdict gloated, then faded with the evening sun, leaving the timeless moss-draped oaks and manicured lawns unscathed. Brunswick, the quaint seaside town that hosted this century trial, suffered no damage.
Not a single arrest took place on the courthouse grounds throughout the trial, Glynn County Deputy Sheriff Ron Corbett said. And the same county sheriff’s assistants who were there to greet protesters at the courthouse each day were there to watch them go at the end.
âWe had a good number of protesters and a number of groups that came from out of state and across the country,â Corbett said. âBut we used a gentle approach. We know that people had the right to demonstrate and we understood what the positions were. We knew they had the right to demonstrate and we never had any objections. Our only concern was to make sure everyone was safe and that things were done legally. “
Of course, it wasn’t that easy. Jump was well aware of the volatile ramifications such a heated lawsuit could present for the community, Corbett said. And the sheriff’s office was prepared for the possibility of less than civil reactions to the dramatic events unfolding at the courthouse.
Likewise, a multi-agency task force known as the United Command has also emerged to deal with a possible backlash from courthouse proceedings. Focusing on the whole community, the Unified Command consisted of county and city police and rescue personnel, as well as county and city elected officials. His ranks also included the County Schools Police, College of Coastal Georgia Police, and County Emergency Management Agency officials.
While the sheriff’s office was also affiliated with the Unified Command, its role was limited by the overarching responsibility as the direct provider of courthouse security, Corbett said.
The operation of the Glynn County Detention Center and the security of the courthouse are the primary functions of the Sheriff’s Office.
However, Corbett said the overall operations of the United Command have allowed the sheriff’s office to focus on its primary objective.
âWe had our hands full with the courthouse and the surrounding grounds,â Corbett said. âWe had to devote all available resources to this specific task. But the United Command played a very important role overall and we knew they were supporting us in other areas. There were a number of police, fire and other services that had a very important role to play and they worked very well. “
Corbett said another faction of the community has provided invaluable help in keeping the peace at the courthouse: its people. This was demonstrated in particular by the many religious leaders of the Golden Isles who joined the protesters every day, from the Reverend Wright Culpepper of the First United Methodist Church to Pastor Mark Baker of Greater Works Ministries to Rabbi Rachael Bregman of the Beth Tefilloh Temple, said Corbett.
While local clergy leaders shared the protesters’ desire for social justice to prevail, they also helped set the tone for peaceful protests.
âThe local ministers have been wonderful in the way they have helped,â Corbett said. “We have communicated with them all along and they have done a tremendous job helping to keep the peace.”
Plus, the companies provided everything from bottled water and snacks to actual meals at peak gatherings outside the courthouse. Volunteers and worshipers from different denominations distributed water bottles and served meals.
Among them was Adam Wainwright, a Glynn Academy graduate, now World Series baseball champion and ace pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals who on November 18 served fried shrimp and preparations to the black clergy in visit and others outside the courthouse.
âGroups got together and fed a lot of people,â Adams said. âWe have had companies and people who have come out and offered hospitality, and I think that has helped a lot to keep this situation calm. I think local leaders of all races and faiths have come together to work to heal our community. “
With a Chatham County presiding judge, an attorney from the Cobb County District Attorney’s Office and six attorneys representing the three defendants, the trial presented logistical challenges for Adams’ office from the start. But as he told The News in October, “We want to do it once, and we want to do it right.”
It started with sending 1,000 jury summons to residents of Glynn County, a sky-high number but a necessity to form a local jury in the high-profile trial, Adams said.
Hundreds of those in this group came under scrutiny during a two-and-a-half-week jury selection round that began on October 18. The final jury announced that on November 3 on 11 whites and one black had outraged many, but the protests outside the courthouse remained peaceful.
Ultimately, that jury returned guilty verdicts against the three men, convicting Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan of murder, aggravated assault and forcible confinement.
Throughout the trial, Adams’ staff of around 20 clerks and archivists constantly juggled a plethora of crucial behind-the-scenes tasks vital to the inner workings of the U.S. justice system, he said.
âI have remarkably good employees and they have performed exceptionally well,â said Adams. âThey did their job. They are the ones who did it. “
The sheriff’s office played a more visible role. Peacekeeping duties justified the presence of the 40 sworn MPs in the courthouse throughout the trial, Corbett said. Highway Patrol MPs such as Seth Powers and Robert Mydell stood guard outside the courthouse each day in full uniform and handgun, joined by Georgia State Patrol soldiers in their finery. However, most MPs stood guard in business attire, with nothing more authoritative than a name badge on the lapel.
âWe didn’t prepare a bunch,â Corbett said. âMost of us had MPs in suits and ties with a sign with their name on it. You haven’t seen riot cops and equipment. We didn’t want to show it to people.
After being at the scene every day of the trial, from Oct. 18 to Nov. 24, Sheriff Jump informed The News that he was “out of his pocket” this week, deferring to the Deputy Sheriff in his stead. Corbett and Adams both admitted that Jump deserved the downtime.
In addition to being visible and accessible on the courthouse grounds, Jump has also appeared at several rallies and marches that took place in the neighboring Brunswick community, Corbett noted. More importantly, Jump reached out and established a genuine relationship with the parents of the young victim, Corbett said.
âThe sheriff was in front of this thing and he was there everyday, for hours,â Corbett said. âNot just as an observer. He was in the crowd, chatting with heads of organizations. He was trying to find out what they wanted and what we could do to keep the peace.
âAnd he has developed a close relationship with members of Amaud Arbery’s family. He has always been compassionate. We listened and they listened. I think both sides wanted our community to handle this whole event peacefully. “
The trial was not without moments of tension. “Destroy it!” was a common refrain among protesters, an ambiguous reference to what could happen without âJustice! The leaders of the New Black Panthers raised eyebrows on November 22, arriving with an entourage of military-clad guards marching around the perimeter of the courthouse armed with semi-automatic rifles.
Jump made contact with the Black Panthers leadership, understood their intentions, and observed that the guards’ guns did not violate Georgia’s open gun laws.
âPersonally, I felt safe inside the courthouse the entire time,â Adams said. âWe took inspiration from the sheriff’s office. I am very grateful to Sheriff Jump and his team for the protection and sense of security they provided. All along, there were a lot of people working together to make this happen. “