Views on the News: Kyle Rittenhouse and the criminal justice system
Kyle Rittenhouse, a man who shot and killed two protestors and wounded another, was sent to trial in early November of this year. Throughout the case his attorneys argued self-defense, making his slaying of two innocent people permissible. He was found not guilty on all six charges in court. What does this say about how our current criminal justice system operates? Are there biases that impact marginalized communities? What can we do going forward to mitigate social injustice within the legal and judicial system?
Prof. Aaron Bray (LGLS)
In my humble opinion, a jury of Kyle Rittenhouse’s peers used a very powerful tool called ‘jury nullification’ to obtain their version of justice for a member of their community. Going forward, I hope members of our community begin to see jury duty not as a burden to avoid but as an opportunity to combat mass incarceration and to fight back against laws that we find unjust. For instance, when members of our community are prosecuted for drug offenses that carry excessive mandatory minimum sentences, we can use jury nullification to ensure that our definition of justice is served. Juries are more powerful than judges. But we can only exercise that power if we are willing to show up for one another by actually serving on juries.
Aaron Bray is a lecturer in the legal studies department specializing in criminal law.
It is painful and scary that we cannot tell a cocky white teenager that carrying a semi-automatic rifle –and shooting three protesters, was illegal. The long-barreled weapon fell through a loophole in Wisconsin’s juvenile-carry law, and the prosecution’s own witnesses admitted that Rittenhouse was not the first aggressor; the men he shot chased him, hit him and pointed a gun at him. In a dangerous cycle, rampant gun-carrying makes shooting in self-defense more “reasonable.” The jury found that a “reasonable” person in Rittenhouse’s situation could fear that lethal force was needed to repel lethal force – regardless of how “innocent” the men he shot may have been. The trial of this white-on-white shooting was a model of due process, even if the outcome seems distressing.
It is doubtful that a person of color in Rittenhouse’s situation would have received the same due process. Black defendants are disproportionately arrested, charged and convicted–and receive sentences more severe than white defendants’. Moreover, there could be no more egregious denial of due process than the suffocation of George Floyd under an officer’s knee. So, it is painfully ironic that the men Rittenhouse shot were protesting rampant police misconduct. Indeed, the “reasonable person” standard which acquitted Rittenhouse contributes to the cycle of systemic racism: white jurors, awash in images disproportionately of Black and Brown criminal defendants, may think it more “reasonable” to fear such people.
Fixing this toxic mix of racism and guns requires the very protest which is threatened by Rittenhouse’s acquittal; it will embolden white supremacists. Luckily, however, we can each protest, every day, from the safety of our desks, funding candidates committed to change and registering people to vote. Anyone can start work, at rockthevote.org.
Sharon Fray-Witzer has been an appellate criminal defense attorney, and legal studies instructor for over 20 years.
Gabriel Frank ‘22
Watching both Kyle Rittenhouse's trial and the actual video footage of the incidents that occurred that night reveal that this is a very difficult issue for many reasons. There is a plausible argument for self-defense on Rittenhouse's part, and that the men who attacked him were hardly innocent. However, there is an equally plausible case for Rittenhouse provoking the very type of violence he allegedly sought to prevent, and that his vigilantism, which both sides can agree is wrong, is what caused the deaths of the two men and the injury of a third in the first place. At the same time, one must certainly take the color of Rittenhouse’s skin into account, and ask themselves if he would even be alive to see a trial if he were of a different racial background. Ultimately, exact opposite verdicts of this trial would have likely yielded the same results. Rittenhouse’s acquittal will likely empower future white, right-wing militias to places of deep racial anguish and upset where they have no business being. On the other hand, a conviction would spur all sorts of (likely violent in nature) movements depicting him as a martyr. There are difficult questions, but both rioting and showing up armed to places where one has no business being, will not bring us any closer to the answers.
Gabriel Frank is a senior at Brandeis University, majoring in philosophy and he is an Associate Editor at The Justice.