Opinion » Rhetoric & Reason

The Rittenhouse verdict



The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse for shooting three men during the Kenosha riots was not a surprise to anyone who had actually watched any of the trial, instead of just absorbing the fevered blather of the chattering pundits. Still, the usual leftist commentators are reacting with shock and rage to the jury's decision to overturn Twitter's guilty verdict. How was an acquittal possible when social media felt so strongly?

Unlike social media or political discourse, the law does not operate on broad-brush emotional reactions, nor in obedience to political narratives. It is not controlled by "likes" or "dislikes," nor by celebrity tweets. Instead, the criminal judicial process is focused on the individual charged, the specific circumstances of the crime alleged, and the law. It is often said that we are "a nation of laws, not of men," so trials are supposed to be insulated from political passions, and not be a referendum on popularity nor a reflection of what CNN, the NY Times, or Fox think.

To convict someone of a crime, specific "elements" of that crime must be proven. It involves an almost mechanical analysis—sort of a checklist, which is why legalese sounds so painfully stilted. The intent is precision and to minimize the impact of emotional reactions to the popularity or notoriety of individuals.

The fact that Rittenhouse shot and killed two men, and wounded the third, was undisputed. The critical issue was self-defense, and whether or not he was reasonably forced to shoot them in order to avoid death or serious injury. The jury concluded that he was. Despite some chatter, the famous "stand your ground" doctrine was not involved here, as Rittenhouse was retreating from his attackers, not "standing his ground."

The probability of an acquittal became evident during the presentation of the prosecution's case. In it, we saw video of a city in flames and chaos, and hundreds of rioters running amok. Call them "demonstrators" if you wish, but most of us see people who participate in a violent mob as "rioters" even if it hurts their feelings. We also saw video of the "victims" chasing and attacking Rittenhouse. To the objective person, an "attacker" is not a "victim," especially if they brandish a gun. Most people recognize that the anonymous and agitated members of a mob can easily beat or kick you to death. After seeing video of Rittenhouse being attacked by one crazed rioter after another, like a swarming pack of jackals, jurors understood how he could reasonably fear for his life.

Did Rittenhouse go to Kenosha intending to shoot rioters? While his secret intent is unknowable, the only people he shot were those who were actively attacking him, despite having many opportunities to shoot other rioters.

Some have argued that by his presence with a gun, Rittenhouse somehow created the violent situation by "provoking" the attacks, and thus deserved whatever violence the mob wished to inflict on him.

Are rioters entitled to exclusion zones from which others are barred, lest their presence provoke the rioters into attacking them? Are they entitled to an area in which they can safely indulge their violent urges without distraction until they grow bored and go home? Don't rioters have a duty to exercise self-control? I have yet to hear liberals criticize the rioters for having chosen to be present or violent.

The prosecutor had an impossible task. If it weren't for the fact that the prosecution was cynically contrived political theater, you could almost feel sorry for him. Having the evidence and law so heavily against him, he was reduced to suggesting that the reasonable course for Rittenhouse when attacked was to be a good sport and to "accept a beating" from the mob. Only the suicidal would see that as a "reasonable" alternative.

Rittenhouse was dumb to go there in the first place and try and be a "hero." As a chubby, baby-faced kid with a gun, facing a mob of frenzied rioters who would see him as a "soft" target, a bad outcome was a possibility. He obviously didn't appreciate the insanity of a mob whose collective destructive mania would feed on itself.

But the rioters he shot were clearly deranged. Attacking a scared kid with a gun? What was wrong with them? I can only attribute it to the hysterical, animalistic "id" of an agitated mob, much like the concertgoers at the recent Travis Scott concert who got so emotionally worked up that they trampled and killed nine people. All three rioters had criminal records, often an indicator of poor impulse control and the inability to think before acting—the sort of person a riot tends to attract. Perhaps riots function as a sort of Darwinian mechanism to "weed out" those without the ability to live peacefully in a civil society.

A little more thinking and a little less emotion from everyone involved would have saved lives. Δ

John Donegan is a retired attorney in Pismo Beach reached his ripe old age by trying to avoid doing stupid stuff. Send a response by emailing a letter for publication to [email protected].

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