Justice in Progress? The Jury Is Out

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Commentary by Emma Feldmeier, Wyoming H.S.

On Nov. 19, Kyle Rittenhouse–the Illinois teenager on trial for killing two people, and severely injuring at third, at a protest for racial justice in Kenosha, Wisconsin–was acquitted on all charges. Slain demonstrators Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber, and Gaige Grosskreutz were responding to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a black man, by a white police officer, back in August of 2020. Rittenhouse came to Kenosha from Illinois with an AR-15 his friend had bought for him with Rittenhouse’s money. This military-style automatic rifle used by Rittenhouse, too young to purchase a firearm himself, ended in death and destruction; a similar tragedy played out earlier this week, when 15-year-old Ethan Crumbley killed four people and wounded seven more at his school school in Oxford, Michigan, using a 9mm Sig Sauer pistol bought a few days earlier by his father.

The fatal combination of youth and guns, a theme all-too-familiar for our generation, could be a whole other article. The Democracy & Z podcast took on the subject last spring; click here to listen.

Comparing Cases

For his deadly actions, Rittenhouse was charged with first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree intentional homicide, attempted first-degree intentional homicide, and two counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, as well as possession of a dangerous weapon as a minor and failing to comply with the curfew mandated by the state. There was a plethora of evidence indicating his guilt on all accounts, and yet a jury found Rittenhouse not guilty, not guilty, not guilty. Why? (Crumbley, meanwhile, has been charged with first-degree murder, attempted murder, and terrorism, among other crimes, and his parents now are being held on manslaughter charges.)

Kyle Rittenhouse in court on Nov. 5.
Associated Press photo by Sean Krajacic, Kenosha News

Rittenhouse’s legal team argued that his actions were justified in that he claimed to be acting in self-defense. They said the protesters Rittenhouse killed and injured were “aggressive,” and that Rittenhouse felt threatened by them. The prosecutors, though, would point to the fact that, as more than one witness testified, the victims did not actually harm anyone; the lone survivor, the only protester nearby who was holding a firearm that night, did not use his gun and claimed to have entered the scene only after hearing the sound of the gunshots by Rittenhouse. In addition to the argument of self-defense, some who defend Rittenhouse pointed to the fact that he was a minor, at age 17, when the event occurred–in other words, give the kid a break. 

But not everyone gets the same breaks. When a Cleveland police officer shot and killed Tamir Rice in 2014, Tamir was just 12 years old. He was holding a toy pellet gun, rather than an AR-15, and he did not kill or harm anyone. He wasn’t granted the right to self-defense. 

The Rittenhouse verdict sparked outrage across the country. How can the same legal system that protected Rittenhouse’s deadly actions leave so many Black and Brown kids unprotected, whether from law enforcement officers or self-appointed citizen vigilantes? Why should Rittenhouse get his life back, when Tamir Rice and so many other young victims are lost to their families forever? For advocates of racial justice, the Rittenhouse case stands as one more proof of white privilege in our society.

“Today’s verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son,” said the parents of Anthony Huber, one of the men killed by Rittenhouse. “It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.”

(To explore the verdict further, hear a wide range of student responses, and join the conversation, check out this New York Times Learning Network article.)

Meanwhile, in Georgia…

Shortly after the Rittenhouse verdict was announced, a decision came down in another high-profile, racially charged murder trial: the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man, by three white men–Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael, and  William Bryan–in Georgia. Arbery was jogging when the McMichaels and Bryan chased him in their pickup trucks, confronted him, and shot him. The defendants in this case attempted to use the same argument as Rittenhouse did: self-defense, as well as making a “citizen’s arrest.” However, the defendants lacked evidence that would indicate that Arbery would have threatened them in any way or that he would have been reasonably suspected to be a criminal.

The prosecutors in this case succeeded where the Wisconsin team failed, attacking the defendants’ argument of self-defense and their claim that they believed Arbery to be a threat to the neighborhood. “You can’t create the situation and then go ‘I was defending myself’,” said Linda Dunikoski, attorney for the prosecution. And this Georgia jury, all white except for one juror, evidently agreed. They found all three defendants guilty of murder.

One major impact of the Amaud Arbery case was the change made to Georgia state law regarding “citizen’s arrest.” The concept dates back to the Civil War era in the South, and was typically used to shield slave-catchers from facing consequences for their violent actions. Georgia Governor Brian Kemp repealed the citizen’s arrest law in recognition of the Ahmaud Arbery murder, while Georgia’s General Assembly passed an historic hate crime bill

Rittenhouse Ruling in Light of Arbery Ruling

While many are hopeful after the Arbery case, where advocates say justice was served, many also feel confusion and despair over the Rittenhouse verdict, where the Hubers and others would say that justice was denied. The presence of guns in both cases, the claim to self-defense used by both defense teams, the political and social divisions at play, the senseless loss of life–watching these trials unfold, it’s hard not to worry about the future of our society.

When will the hate and violence end? Will our criminal justice system ever provide “equal protection under the law,” for everyone? It seems that whenever any progress is made, like with the Arbery ruling, or the conviction earlier this year of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd, there’s always something to counteract that progress, as seen with the Rittenhouse acquittal.

A few steps forward, a few steps back: are we really moving at all?