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.