Opinion: The Rittenhouse verdict is yet another legal failure of the American justice system

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Kyle Rittenhouse - Caricature / DonkeyHotney / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

The verdict demonstrates the tragic, biased state of America’s justice system.

On Aug. 15, 2020, during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, Kyle Rittenhouse killed two protestors and injured a third. After two weeks of testimony and evidence in a trial riddled with legal failures and laced with biases, Rittenhouse has been cleared of all charges.

The incident happened when Rittenhouse traveled from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, Wisconsin, on a night full of protests expressing outrage over the police shooting of Jacob Blake.  Armed with an AR-15-style rifle, Rittenhouse claimed he had traveled to assist as a medic and brought the gun for protection. In a tearful performance on the stand, Rittenhouse stated he acted in self-defense, feared for his life, and “did what [he] had to do.”

The trial left the nation divided, with supporters of Rittenhouse declaring him a hero who bravely stepped in to protect Kenosha from the danger of the riots and a champion of gun rights, and adversaries calling him an irresponsible instigator of violence.

The verdict is a serious miscarriage of justice that could negatively impact citizen safety at future protests. However, it is not surprising. It represents yet another instance where prejudice tarnished the morality and ethical conduct of the legal system and destroyed the integrity of the case. It highlights the disparity of treatment based on race in American justice.

The decision seemed set in stone before the trial even started, after the judge presiding over the case refused to allow prosecutors to refer to the deceased as “victims,” instead deeming “looters” and “arsonists” more appropriate terms. It looked settled when the criminal history of those killed was looked at and attacked by numerous people and when the internet was swarmed with images of Rittenhouse cleaning graffiti to support his image as an upstanding American citizen.

If American justice systems were fair, Rittenhouse would never have been acquitted. According to Wisconsin law, a person can reasonably claim self-defense for the use of deadly force if the threat faced can cause extreme bodily harm and death. 

One man Rittenhouse shot held a skateboard. Rittenhouse held an AR-15 rifle. One could’ve caused bruises. The other caused death. In no way should a skateboard be considered as equally dangerous as a gun. The other victim, whom he shot multiple times in the back, was unarmed. These circumstances should never have logically warranted killing in self-defense. But in a trial clouded with blatant biases of the judge, difficult defense laws, and legal blunders by the prosecution, Rittenhouse went free.

Unfortunately, this is nothing new for an increasingly polarized America.  These kinds of circumstances frequently happen in the American justice system. Far too often, the legal system works such that white members of society, particularly men, get off with light sentences or even worshipped. Former President Donald Trump escaped legal repercussions despite being accused of sexual assault by over 20 women. Cop after cop has been spared from any kind of repercussion for the violence towards and murder of Black citizens. And now, it seems coming to protests armed and firing into crowds can be done without facing any consequence.

On the flip side, other ethnic and cultural minorities are set up to fail. Often, marginalized communities are given unjust sentences, denied their rights, and face extreme prejudice from biased judges and juries. Rittenhouse would almost certainly not have been acquitted if he was Black.

According to the Sentencing Project, African-American adults are 5.9 times as likely to be incarcerated as whites and far more likely to be searched if stopped by a police officer. The justice system contains implicit racial biases that lead to crueler and more frequent sentences. 

In fact, according to the American Civil Liberties Union, “The color of a defendant and victim’s skin plays a crucial and unacceptable role in deciding who receives the death penalty in America. People of color have accounted for a disproportionate 43 % of total executions since 1976 and 55 % of those currently awaiting execution.” 

A Comparison of Cases by Elle Horst

Homer once stated, “The blade itself incites the deed of violence.”

Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha with the full intention of causing conflict. He willingly went to a protest where chaos was almost certainly going to ensue. He did so with a dangerous weapon and made the decision to instigate conflict and provoke protestors. His actions resulted in death and injury.

Despite this, he went free. Instead of jail time, Rittenhouse received praise and support; he was congratulated by Trump and idolized by his legions of followers as a hero of gun rights. He was interviewed by Tucker Carlson, portrayed as a hero for the far right, and even offered political internships from a handful of conservative representatives. Due to racial biases in the justice system and America itself, he has been rewarded endlessly for murder.