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Racism is a common thread in 3 high profile trials in different parts of the U.S.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And now to a story about three high-profile trials happening in different parts of the country. In Georgia, opening statements are expected to begin this week in the case against the three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery. In Wisconsin, a now-18-year-old stands trial for killing two protesters and wounding another. And in Virginia, a civil conspiracy case is underway against neo-Nazis and white nationalist groups that organized the Unite the Right rally. NPR's Leila Fadel reports that central to all three cases is racism in this country.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: It's a now-infamous scene - white supremacists marching with torches, chanting Jews will not replace us and death to antifa.

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UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Death to antifa, death to antifa, death to...

FADEL: That Unite the Right rally in 2017 ended in violence with the killing of Heather Heyer. In opening statements in the civil case last week against the organizers, one defendant dropped racial slurs and referenced Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf" in a federal courtroom. This week, opening statements are also expected in the murder case against father and son Gregory and Travis McMichael along with William "Roddie" Byron (ph). The white men are accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man jogging in the neighborhood. Central to jury selection were questions on race from the defense as a sign of whether a juror could be impartial. Do they believe the Confederate flag is a racist symbol? Do they support the Black Lives Matter movement? Here's defense attorney Jason Sheffield posing a question to potential jurors.

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JASON SHEFFIELD: Who here agrees that people of color are not treated fairly or equally in the criminal justice system?

FADEL: The trial against Kyle Rittenhouse is also underway. He was 17 when he crossed state lines with a semiautomatic weapon. He was underage, so it was not legal for him to have a gun. Then he shot and killed two people and wounded another at anti-racist protests in Kenosha, Wis., that erupted after a police officer shot a Black man in the back repeatedly. Rittenhouse is claiming self-defense. In that case, the judge has already ruled the people Rittenhouse killed and wounded can't be called victims. Here's Judge Bruce Schroeder in court.

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BRUCE SCHROEDER: The word victim is a loaded, loaded, loaded word. And I think alleged victim is a cousin to it.

FADEL: While the victims here weren't Black, they were at protests in the defense of Black lives, says Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center in Tennessee and a leader in the Movement for Black Lives. She says watching the three cases unfold...

ASH-LEE WOODARD HENDERSON: We're seeing the disproportionate impact on Black lives. It's saving whose lives matter and are valuable and whose are not. We're seeing judges say that the prosecution cannot call the folks that were murdered or that were injured by shootings - that those folks can't be called victims, but that the prosecution can call them arsonists, you know, looters, rioters, etc.

FADEL: Brandon Buskey is the director of the Criminal Law Reform Project at the American Civil Liberties Union.

BRANDON BUSKEY: One of the main things that unites this when you look at the allegations is, you know, these are all defendants, either in criminal cases or in the civil case in Charlottesville, who have been accused of actions in service of trying to defend the legacy of white supremacy and white dominance in this country. And I think that's one of the most striking things that links all of these trials.

FADEL: He points to the white vigilantism in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery and the folk hero status of Rittenhouse, who killed people. He crossed state lines to a place he's not from, armed, to confront anti-racist protesters. And people crowdfunded to pay for his defense.

BUSKEY: One of the other common threads that I think we need to pay attention to here is the complicity of law enforcement. Now, obviously, these were not cases of police directly shooting an individual as what happened with the uprisings of the past number of summers, not just with George Floyd.

FADEL: Buskey references the concerns and allegations about law enforcement's complicity or willingness to ignore threats in each case. The outcomes of these three court cases will be referendums on race and white supremacy in this country, he says. But the emboldening of white nationalist and white supremacist groups...

BUSKEY: Those undercurrents are going to require a much broader social reckoning than what these trials can provide.

FADEL: What he's watching for are the narratives being spun in court and what the juries ultimately decide about who deserves to be punished.

Leila Fadel, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.