It was a prosecutor from out of town who had spent the majority of her career in a large, liberal city who had been brought in to try the most significant case of her professional life: the murder of a Black man on a sunny afternoon by three white men just outside of a small city pinned to the South Georgia coastline.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of racism in her possession, Linda Dunikoski, the prosecutor, surprised some legal observers by largely avoiding the subject of race throughout the trial, opting instead to stick closely to the details of how the three men had chased the Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, through their neighbourhood. “It’s a travesty,” said one legal observer.
The dangers she faced extended beyond her professional life and a single trial. For others, it would be a referendum on a society that looked to have taken cautious steps toward tackling racism last summer, only to dissolve into even deeper divides as a result of the election results.
In a unanimous decision on Wednesday, the jury convicted the three men guilty of murder and other crimes after debating for approximately a day and a half. Ms. Dunikoski’s plan had been successful. The three convicted men — Gregory McMichael, 65, his son Travis McMichael, 35, and his neighbour William Bryan, 52 — are all facing life terms in jail after being found guilty of the charges against them. They will also go on trial in February on federal hate crime charges that were brought against them.
Mr. Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough, commended Ms. Dunikoski for threading the most difficult of needles, according to Mr. Bryan’s attorney, Kevin Gough. In her closing statement, she said that the men had assaulted Mr. Arbery “because he was a Black guy jogging down the street,” which was the only time she brought up race throughout the three-week trial.
Ms. Dunikoski’s technique, according to a number of legal experts, was considered dangerous at the time of writing. Many in Brunswick, on the other hand, believed she had shown excellent judgement in determining the appropriate tone to use in a Deep South town where, they claimed, race is not directly spoken in order for everyone to comprehend the ramifications.
From the outset, the case repeated terrible themes that were prevalent in the Deep South. The case of the murder of a Black guy by a group of white males armed with weapons was presented to a jury that comprised just one other Black person. The remainder of the room was white. Over the objections of Ms. Dunikoski, who had attempted unsuccessfully to prevent possible Black jurors from being eliminated from the jury pool during the selection process by the defence attorneys, a jury had been appointed over her concerns. It was also a difficult time for Glynn County, which has a majority-white population and is still scarred by the history of segregation to this day.
When it came to integrating schools and public institutions, its county seat, Brunswick, had garnered national attention decades earlier for the collaborative efforts of its Black and white leaders. However, in a county where more than one in every four people is Black, the selection of such a racially imbalanced jury had aroused outrage and distrust among citizens. The Golden Isles, which are a group of four barrier islands off the coast of Brunswick, are a popular tourist attraction and home to some of the country’s richest individuals. Brunswick is the state capital.
Prior to the trial, Ms. Dunikoski, who is 54 and refused to be interviewed, had spent the most of her career in the Atlanta metropolitan area, earning a reputation as a tough-minded prosecutor who went after murders, gang members, and sex offenders, among other criminals and gang members. By the conclusion of the trial, she had gained the respect and confidence of the Arbery family to such an extent that they began to refer to her as Auntie Linda.
Before taking on her new role in Cobb, Ms. Dunikoski worked as a prosecutor in Fulton County for more than 17 years, where one of her most high-profile cases was the 2015 trial of a group of Atlanta Public Schools teachers who were convicted on multiple charges, including racketeering and other charges, for rigging students’ standardised test scores. Critics said that the prosecutors used a handful of primarily Black instructors as scapegoats for a school district that had far deeper structural flaws than they were able to articulate.
When the defence claimed that the three white men had chased Mr. Arbery legitimately under a state citizen’s arrest legislation that has since been largely repealed, she took the jury through a maze of technical legal grounds in order to counter the defense’s position. As part of her investigation, she attempted to dispel speculation that Travis McMichael, the guy who fired the shot, had done so in self-defense.
Ms. Dunikoski was greeted as a hero by the throng outside the Glynn County Courthouse on Wednesday, shortly after the judgement was aired outside the building. They erupted in applause as her name was mentioned: “Thank you, Linda!” To express his approval of the judgement, Charlie Bailey, a Democratic candidate for Georgia attorney general, texted his pals the word “Amen.”
Ms. Dunikoski addressed a jubilant and relieved throng outside the courtroom shortly after the verdict was announced, with Mr. Arbery’s parents standing at her side. Her delivery was straightforward once again. According to her, “the decision today was a judgement based on the facts, based on the evidence,” she said. In order for the jury to do the proper thing, that was our purpose – to provide that information to them.