Rittenhouse Verdict: Troubling But Correct

I am not celebrating Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal on five charges last week.

Rittenhouse should not have been in Kenosha in the first place and he most definitely should not have been carrying an AR-15. In my view, nobody should be carrying an assault rifle. Their sale and possession should be banned outside of the military.

But as John Gross, Director of the Public Defender Project at UW-Madison, has pointed out, the problem was not the jury, but the law. Gross argued in a Sunday oped in the Wisconsin State Journal that the jury correctly applied Wisconsin law with regard to self-defense. That law requires the prosecution to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not acting in self-defense. That’s a high bar and the prosecution in this case didn’t meet it.

The jury did not say that Rittenhouse was innocent or that he showed good judgment or that he was a good person. They simply concluded that he was not guilty, beyond a reasonable doubt, of the charges brought against him. So, it’s important not to read too much into this.

Rather than pointing to the Rittenhouse verdicts as another example of how our system failed, we should see it as our system working remarkably well. The question before the jury was not about the First Amendment or the Second Amendment or Black Lives Matter or vigilantism or any other hot-button culture wars issues that commentators on Fox or MSNBC wanted to make it out to be. The question was a narrow one carefully defined in law. The jury took its time and reached a more than defensible legal conclusion.


If you don’t like the result — and I don’t — then the answer is to change the law, not to throw out or defame our system of justice.

The verdict is troubling because it could send the message to some that vigilante actions are protected by law. That’s certainly been the reaction on the left and they may be right, but it’s too early to tell. Rittenhouse did get off, but only after staring down a life sentence. His reaction at hearing the verdict, crumpling to the table in relief, shows just how fearful he was about the outcome.

Look, I’m no believer in Second Amendment absolutism. I detest assault rifles and even handguns, for that matter. I find vigilantism dangerous and disgusting. But I believe in the American system of justice, and I remember a time when liberals spoke up for the rights of criminal defendants and the presumption of innocence. It wasn’t so long ago that liberals didn’t define justice as a conviction.

Our definition of justice cannot be that we convict people we don’t like or that we convict or acquit defendants to send some sort of political message. It’s not the job of our system to deliver political verdicts, but legally correct ones. In this case it did just that.

Let me finish with a broader point. The Republican Legislature is never going to change the law so that, when someone is accused of murder, it’s on the defendant to prove that he acted in self-defense. In order for that to happen Democrats will have to take back the Legislature. But they cannot do that on their current course because right now they are all about racking up huge margins in a couple of counties while getting creamed in the rest of the state.

This is another example of how, in order to make substantive progress, Democrats need to move to the center to capture more votes in more parts of the state. Move center to move left.

Postscript: This afternoon guilty verdicts came down in the Ahmaud Arbery trial. This too should increase confidence in our system. The Rittenhouse and Arbery cases were very different. Rittenhouse was being pursued when he fired while the defendants were pursuing Arbery when one of them shot him.

Welcome to the 280th day of consecutive posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “Rittenhouse Verdict: Troubling But Correct

    1. It means that in order for Democrats to win more elections, especially in small towns and rural places, they need to become more moderate. If they do that and win majorities in the Legislature then they can pursue policies that I regard as center-left. For example, changing the self-defense laws. It makes sense to me that if I kill someone and claim self-defense the burden should be on me to prove that it was, in fact, self-defense.


  1. Ahmaud Arbery and Kyle Rittenhouse are two sides of the same coin. Both men were minding their own business and engaged in a lawful activity. (although in potentially hostile environments) Neither men were, in any way, confrontational with their eventual attackers. Both men were chased, and accosted, by armed aggressors intent on denying them the use of a public thoroughfare, and possibly killing them. Both men attempted to avoid conflict, and were unsuccessful in that end. The difference is NOT that one is black and one is white. It is that one is dead, and the other is not – one was ARMED, and the other was not. One had an option that the other did not have. (Sorry, but that’s it)

    Americans have learned to love crafted narratives. “Innocent black youth gunned down by white supremacists”. “Peaceful protesters gunned down by a racist/sexist/homophobe/etc/etc gun nut”. But both stories are essentially the same.

    Ahmaud WAS killed by Racists!!! They grabbed their guns, jumped in their trucks, took off to get the “ni**er” that DARED to come into “their neighborhood”. This is why both stories are the same. Racists attacked Ahmaud because he was black, and they HATED him for it, he wasn’t one of them. Rioters attacked Kyle R because he is a right wing (take your pick of epithet), and they HATED him for it, he wasn’t one of them.

    Never, for a moment, think that “woke” hatred for those on the right is not EVERY BIT as intense as that of the racist for those who are black.

    Vigilantism does not just apply to racists “making their neighborhood safe for white people”. The term applies equally well to those who take offense when they are denied their “right” to loot, riot, and burn. (mob violence might be hard to spot in the midst of a riot)

    Finally, if rational Americans ever consider a path to justice where charges are filed, and you must prove your innocence, rather than the state prove your guilt, civilization will be done. That is a short road that involves a “handbasket” and a definite “destination”.


  2. The court of public opinion and media bias have judged and convicted Rittenhouse devoid of evidence and facts.

    Does that not raise more questions than answers on how society operates in current times?


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