There are times when it’s good that this is a law blog, so I need neither Gertrude nor explain the obvious. A jury found a defendant not guilty based upon the evidence presented and the law. Juries don’t send messages. Juries determine whether the prosecution proved the defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. What others make of it, from whether they agree with the verdict to what the verdict “means” to anyone else has nothing to do with the duty of jurors. Their job is to reach a verdict (or not), and they did their job.
From politicians to pundits, academics to “civil rights” organizations, the cry is that the verdict sends a message to white supremacist vigilantes to take their AR-15s to hot zones, brandish them openly where they are likely to inflame already outraged people causing a reaction born of fear, and then fire at will and kill, whether black people or white allies. Is it necessary to offer a thousand examples of this message? Not this time. It’s ubiquitous.
There were two ways the messaging of this trial could have gone, regardless of the right fringe’s claim that Rittenhouse was some hero for going to Kenosha to defend a gas station from destruction. Rittenhouse was arrested, indicted and tried for his actions. The trial, despite the desperate efforts of the media to paint the judge as being outrageously biased, was well within normal parameters for a trial. The jury, despite threats of having their lives ruined if they reached the wrong verdict, took their time to deliberate. And ultimately, a verdict was reached.
The first message was that our legal system is, despite all its flaws, an amazing process whereby ordinary citizens take on a huge responsibility to sit in judgment of their fellow citizens. That message would be an opportunity to explain the law and the rationale behind it, why the jury relies on evidence at trial, testimonial and otherwise, to decide the facts rather than the claims and spin of those who twist, distort or outright lie about what happened to serve their cause. It’s glorious to see how evidence is presented, subject to the crucible of cross-examination, admitted into evidence, objected to, argued about, disputed, and ultimately determined after having been run through the legal sausage machine.
That could have been the message, that for all its flaws, internal and caused by the flawed human beings who pull its levers, it is an amazing system.
That message, that our foundational principles, presumption of innocence, burden of proof on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, is how the system was meant to work and should work for every defendant.
And part of that message was the look on the defendant’s face, the hug he gave his lawyer after the verdict was announced, to remind every person paying attention that this was not a fun ride, no walk in the park, no phony show trial with a predetermined outcome. This defendant, like every defendant who stands up when the jury is about to announce its verdict, had no idea how many words were going to come out of the jury box.
With a few changes in facts, fairly minor ones, this verdict could have gone the other way. Any lawyer who has tried a self-defense case will tell you how difficult it can be to prevail. Forget the motivated “legal experts” who theorize how easy the defense is to proffer and how hard it is to counter. It’s an extremely fact-oriented defense, and its reasonableness is extremely difficult to establish.
As the defendant and his lawyer faced the jury at the moment the verdicts were announced, they held their breaths. No one ever knows what that verdict will be. No one should ever take for granted that if they do anything like what Rittenhouse did, they will get a two-word verdict. No one should assume that the facts, as they played out on the streets of Kenosha and in that courtroom will happen should they do what Rittenhouse did. No one.
Instead, the facts were subsumed by a narrative, the process was dismissed as just another example of white supremacy in action, proof of how a white system run by white people endorsed the murder by some white vigilante who killed and wounded black allies. They drew two roadmaps, one away from our legal system that did its job of determining the facts, applying the law, and reaching a verdict. The other to tell white supremacist vigilantes how to go to a protest or riot with a gun, evoke a reaction from the mostly peaceful good guys who only burn things down because they’re really angry, and then murder them and get away with it.
A cynic, stepping back from the fray, might conclude that the people drawing the roadmap want it to be true, want it to be followed, so that they can induce the stupid and crazy to come to their riots and engage in violence. They seem to want those who would be inclined to be “like Kyle” by bringing an AR-15 to a hot spot to show up in full vigilante mode and fire wantonly at protesters, black and white, and show images of the right wing crazies murdering protesters in the street. So what if a few lives are lost if it’s for the cause, if it will stoke the flames of anger and hatred so that people will bend toward their side?
There is nothing to celebrate when people die or were harmed when it didn’t need to happen. Rittenhouse didn’t need to go to Kenosha, didn’t need to bring a long gun. Protesters didn’t need to go out to protest, and rioters didn’t need to burn down buildings in Kenosha. But these things happened, and they were resolved with the mechanism a society uses to determine whether a crime has been committed, as it should be. There is absolutely nothing about the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse that suggests the same outcome should someone else do something similar. There is no other message to be sent than the jury has spoken in one case.