Jurors make their decisions in isolation. The problem is that in some cases, their judgments can have disastrous consequences.
The Kyle Rittenhouse case is one of them. A Wisconsin jury acquitted him of all charges related to his behavior on the streets of Kenosha in August 2020 that left two men dead and another injured. To some observers, the verdict seems outrageous. Given this issue at scale, how can our laws allow a teen to escape criminal liability after he or she travels from out of state to a place of civil unrest, violates a curfew designed to keep people off the streets, and frankly bears an offensive weapon that produces deadly harm?
Rittenhouse claimed he was in Kenosha to protect private property, although the property owner testified that he did not seek his help. Rittenhouse further claimed that he went to the scene of the disturbances to provide medical assistance to the wounded, even though he had no training as a doctor and did not provide assistance to anyone that night. Because he was not a government official, he did not wear a uniform or insignia. Instead, he was wearing a backwards baseball cap and openly carried a weapon of war. And when people saw him, they understandably assumed he was an active shooter and attacked him to protect themselves and others from the danger of being shot. As expected, people ended up dead.
But juries aren’t looking at the big picture. He orders jurors to focus only on the facts they hear in court, control the media, and ignore anything outside admissible evidence. Jurors look at the finer details, and the details matter. The prosecution bears the burden of proving each element of each accused crime beyond a reasonable doubt. When the defendant claims self-defense, as Rittenhouse did, the prosecution also bears the burden of proving beyond reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defence. Negative proof is a very steep climb. In this case, lawyers showed jurors video recordings of the events of that night. They slowed him frame by frame, asking the jury not to take into account the big picture of Rittenhouse’s extremely poor judgment in bringing the AR-15 into a spectacle of chaos, but his demeanor and mental state in the precise moments when the shots were fired.
Victims of crime sometimes feel that they get less protection at trial than the accused, and in fact they do. That’s because our constitution requires the government to provide due process for a person accused of a crime and facing loss of liberty. As we saw in this case, the judge would not even allow the deceased to be referred to as “victims.” Although Judge Schroeder received some criticism for this ruling, it is a common practice in a criminal case because the term “victim” carries the implication that the defendant is guilty. Our system operates on the idea that it is better to release ten guilty persons than to convict an innocent person. Sometimes these protective measures make us feel a serious injustice.
And while the big picture isn’t a jury’s concern, this case will have repercussions outside the courtroom. Rittenhouse would become the poster boy for right-wing extremists and politicians. Rep. Matt Gaetz has already stated that Rittenhouse would be a good congressional intern. You can bet Rittenhouse will be a guest of some members of Congress at the next State of the Union address. Why did Kenosha’s kid become such a celebrity issue?
His notoriety is part of the larger culture wars raging in our country. Rittenhouse said he was drawn to Kenosha to help protect the city. the threat? Protesters expressing anger at the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed black man. While this trial was ongoing, another trial was taking place in Georgia, involving charges of murdering white men who were carrying out a “citizen’s arrest” when they killed Ahmaud Arbery, a jogger, because they suspected him of trespassing in a home under construction. It is not hard to imagine that if the defendants in these cases were black, their experience with the criminal justice system would be very different.
Now cynical politicians will use this judgment to exploit the division in our country. They will ignore the narrow lens through which jurors look at the case and declare that this ruling is a larger message to society that we must embrace civil justice. Political opportunists will use this issue to lure race and foment fear to advance their own political agendas. They will cite this case to promote the irresponsible use of offensive weapons under the banner of the Second Amendment. And when people without law enforcement training, experience, or oversight feel free to take the law into their own hands, we are all less safe.