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On Friday, a jury in Kenosha acquitted teenager Kyle Rittenhouse of all the charges against him. Rittenhouse shot and killed two men, and injured a third, during protests in the Wisconsin city in August 2020.
Many Americans were shocked by the verdict.
They shouldn’t have been.
As legal experts have explained, American self-defense laws are very broad, resulting in the acquittal of many people who have shot and killed others. Those acquitted include the officers who were involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot during a botched raid at her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky in March 2020, and George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida in 2012.
Rittenhouse faced five counts of homicide and reckless endangerment. The white teenager from Illinois, armed with a rifle, was in Kenosha as the city was rocked by protests days after a white officer shot Jacob Blake, who was black. That shooting came just months after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, an unarmed black man, setting off a summer of activism and questioning about race, justice and policing.
The mostly white jury in the Rittenhouse case was asked whether, at the moment he fired his gun at the three white men, Kyle Rittenhouse could have reasonably concluded that his life was in danger. After four days of deliberations, they concluded that he did.
“The trial itself has not gone well for the prosecution, for reasons that relate to the nature of self-defense claims,” David French wrote in the Atlantic, before Friday’s verdict. “Such claims are not assessed by means of sweeping inquiries into the wisdom of the actions that put the shooter into a dangerous place in a dangerous time. Instead, they produce a narrow inquiry into the events immediately preceding the shooting. The law allows even a foolish man to defend himself, even if his own foolishness put him in harm’s way.”
We may believe that Rittenhouse’s armed presence in Kenosha was “foolish,” a white boy’s attempt at vigilante justice during a summer of racial discontent. But that is not what the jury was asked to consider.
The jury was not asked to judge if Rittenhouse was justified in being in Kenosha. They weren’t asked to judge if it was appropriate for him to walk the streets with a gun.
These are questions that people far from Kenosha have rightly asked, but they were not what was before the 12 members of the jury.
Observers of the case were also right to question Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder treatment of Rittenhouse during the trial. His deference to the accused murderer raises significant questions of fairness.
The biggest danger from the Rittenhouse acquittal may be the way some are using it to elevate him as a hero. He isn’t. It isn’t heroic for Americans to arm themselves and patrol distant streets pretending that they are enforcing justice in the perceived absence of law and order. As we’ve seen in this case, it was a recipe for disaster.
“If the jury acquits Rittenhouse, it will not be a miscarriage of justice. The law gives even foolish men the right to defend their lives,” French wrote. “But an acquittal does not make a foolish man a hero. A political movement that turns a deadly and ineffective vigilante into a role model is a movement that is courting more violence and encouraging more young men to recklessly brandish weapons in dangerous places, and that will spill more blood in America’s streets.”
Regardless of our reaction to the Rittenhouse verdict, encouraging more behavior like his is an outcome we should all want to avoid.