By C.A. “Kip” Crofts, guest columnist
(Former U. S. Attorney, Wyoming)
So, is Kyle Rittenhouse really guilty?
In the past few days countless opinions have been expressed about that. But only one counts – the verdict by the jury.
In our Democratic Republic the verdict of a jury of your peers as to whether or not you are guilty of a crime is a sacred right of American citizens. Many people in the world do not enjoy that right and we should zealously protect it. That verdict should be the end of the discussion.
I have tried many criminal trials over the years. I won most and lost a few. Generally, I have found myself in perhaps grudging agreement with the verdict even when I lost. A few times I thought the verdict was wrong. But never once did I think it appropriate or ethical to take to the press or the airwaves or to social media to express my opinion that the verdict was wrong.
To do so is inappropriate for all citizens, but I especially think it is inappropriate for important public figures, including President Joe Biden, and especially those who are lawyers, to express such opinions.
I’m not generally a fan of televised criminal trials. I think too often it encourages lawyers, witnesses, and even the judge (recall Judge Ito in the O.J. Simpson trial?) to ham it up for the public rather than doing their important work. But in the Rittenhouse case I think it was a valuable lesson for all of us.
It was that because too often the work of criminal trials is not seen by the public. Trials are normally open, but most people don’t attend, and have to evaluate them based on a few snippets we read in the paper, colored by the bias or perhaps lack of understanding of the reporter. But the Rittenhouse trial was available for all to see if they wished. And if they watched it they would have seen that the verdict was clearly correct.
In fact I found myself wondering why the kid was even charged, but recognized that public opinion can affect such decisions. It would take a brave prosecutor to decline to charge the case, or a brave judge to dismiss the case after hearing the prosecution’s very weak case. Both would prefer to let the jury make that call.
And I’m OK with that – America should, and used to, accept jury verdicts as being their verdict – that of the common people.
Or I found myself wondering why he was not charged as a juvenile, a naive young man sadly drawn into something he couldn’t pretend to fully understand nor control. Those are the kind of kids that juvenile court is designed for. But once again, charging him as a juvenile, even if justified, would no doubt have brought the same people out to criticize it that we now hear critiquing the jury verdict. So maybe the trial was inevitable.
Clearly, he should never have gone to that riot at all, and clearly should not have taken a rifle. But that bad judgment does not make him guilty of murder. Too many in the media conversation who misunderstand the law of self-defense say, “But he was the first one to be an aggressor, from the moment he showed up with a gun.” But that is not what the law says. You must, as the jury was instructed, look closely at the moments before the application of deadly force to see who was the aggressor.
President Biden obviously was not one of those glued to the TV and watching the trial, including much of the prosecution case that made it clear the young man was being assaulted by the people he killed or wounded, because the President said, not only that, “We must acknowledge that the jury has spoken,” but also unfortunately said, “the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included…”
That last phrase was unnecessary and, in my view, totally inappropriate for a President who has such a huge pulpit, and a lawyer who should know better. Do you suppose the Connecticut Bar Association will censure him for that statement?
You are not automatically an aggressor, not entitled to claim self-defense, just because you choose to be armed. Being armed was his right and no one had legal justification to attack or even to confront him solely on that basis.
Sadly enough, in cases having nothing to do with this one, some police officers themselves don’t understand that either, and think they are entitled to kill someone merely because he is armed, especially with a gun. There must be more than mere possession of a gun- evidence of an intent to inflict death or bodily harm upon someone.
In almost all States it is perfectly lawful for anyone to be armed with a gun, and no one should think that fact alone justifies a confrontation or attack upon them. That is why the judge dismissed the charge that Rittenhouse unlawfully possessed the rifle from the start. I have no idea why that charge was even brought.
So, is anyone guilty for what happened that night in Kenosha?
Yes. The public figures, elected officials, whose duty it is to maintain the peace and security of all citizens and who did not do so are guilty. The Governor failed to send sufficient resources to maintain calm, probably for political reasons because that would make it look like he was agreeing with President Donald Trump that these riots should have been suppressed.
Also guilty are the many politicians, media commentators, celebrities and others who fail to understand the difference between a “protest” and a violent “riot” and spent the summer making public statements in support of this and other riots. Some of them even helped post bail for arrested rioters.
Remember when Chris Cuomo of CNN said, “Please show me where it says that protests have to be polite and peaceful.” Well, Chris, it says it in the First Amendment to our Constitution, where it gives the people the right to “peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” You would think that media people, whose very profession is enabled by the freedom of the press also given in the First Amendment might read the rest of it!
When have violent riots accomplished anything but the destruction of property, and occasionally the lives of people, usually innocent people who have nothing to do with the grievances supposedly underlying the riot? We burned Detroit, we burned Watts, we have been doing this for many years, and is anyone better off for it? What about the brown-skinned immigrant in Kenosha who had his car lot destroyed? Did he deserve that? Did that act accomplish any good for anyone? Why would anyone but a psychopath publicly support such riots? Are we encouraging more now with all of the stupid comments being made about the Rittenhouse verdict? Is that what those people want – to simply destroy as much as they can and hope something better will arise from the hot ashes?
There may be other unintentional consequences of what we now do in this country with all the issues surrounding this trial. We have racialized everything, and too many people evaluate every such issue, but especially those having to do with police behavior, through the lens of race. The truth is most police actions are lawful and proper, but too many are not, and too often those involve black men. I agree we need to resolve those issues better than we usually do. It is wrong for the police and others to say the police are always right without knowing the facts. But it is also wrong to say that if the victim is black, he is always right as well. Each case is different, and each needs to be resolved individually, as with a jury verdict like in this case.
I worry that what we have done with all of this careless commentary recently is to encourage people to fight or run from the police, knowing that they will be supported if not sainted by the media, politicians, and everyone else with a loud voice. Sometimes they don’t deserve sainthood, but more important what they really don’t deserve or need is encouragement to do something that may get them killed. We need justice but we don’t need dead martyrs. Our country – our justice system, is supposed to work just like it did in the Rittenhouse trial. We don’t need more riots like the one that triggered this case caused by careless and stupid comments by people who should know better about the verdict.
Kyle Rittenhouse, seventeen years old when he got drawn into that mess, with an innocent if naive motive to help people protect themselves from irrational and violent rioters who were not being controlled by the people who had that responsibility, is not the face of all that is wrong with America today.
Not even close.
In the few days since his acquittal he’s been called everything but the grandson of Hitler. Even President Biden, when this first happened, accused him of being a “white supremacist,” once again without any facts to support his inappropriate commentary on things he knew nothing about. If people who should know better keep talking this way I fear that someone might try to kill Kyle Rittenhouse. Is that what those loudmouthed idiots wish to see?
Maybe we ought to leave the kid alone and hold the people who are really responsible to account.