Editor’s Note: Jennifer Rodgers is a former federal prosecutor, adjunct professor of clinical law at NYU School of Law, lecturer-in-law at Columbia Law School and a CNN legal analyst. The opinions expressed here are her own. Read more opinion at CNN.
Kyle Rittenhouse, on trial this month for killing two unarmed men and injuring another during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last summer, was acquitted Friday on all counts – including first-degree intentional homicide and four other felony charges – after the jury deliberated for more than 25 hours.
The trial came down to two dueling narratives. To the prosecutors, Rittenhouse was a vigilante with an AR-15-style weapon who went looking for trouble. To the defense, Rittenhouse was the sobbing teenager who testified that he found himself under attack and in those lightning-fast moments made a reasonable decision to protect himself.
The jury clearly believed the latter, which, given the facts, the law and other circumstances of the trial, is no surprise.
This case was always going to be an uphill battle for prosecutors. The key issue was whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, which means that he reasonably feared for his life when he pulled the trigger and shot Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz that night.
Trying to weigh Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim amid the two dueling narratives was not an easy job for the jury. One could reasonably argue that Rittenhouse provoked the attacks on him by openly carrying his weapon in a threatening manner, and that he had the option to retreat or otherwise avoid using deadly force, even if defending himself. If the jury had found either of these things to be true, it would have defeated the self-defense claim. But there was also evidence – including the critical videos of the events in question and the testimony of Rittenhouse himself – that in the key moments right before he pulled the trigger, Rittenhouse acted in response to imminent threats to his personal safety because he believed he was in danger.
The laws and applicable legal standards also created a tough road for prosecutors trying to win a conviction here. Our criminal justice system generally favors the defendant, because of our core belief that it is better to see a guilty man go free than to convict an innocent one. Thus in criminal cases, prosecutors carry the highest burden of proof known to our legal system: proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Like in many other states, Wisconsin law is sympathetic to homicide defendants claiming self-defense. Once a defendant raises self-defense as an issue, it requires prosecutors to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the defendant did not act in self-defense.
Finally, Judge Bruce Schroeder, who presided over the case with a mercurial demeanor and frequent tongue-lashings, didn’t make things easy for the prosecutors. The judge’s behavior seemed to some to betray a pro-Rittenhouse bias – for example, when he ruled that prosecutors would not be allowed to refer to Rittenhouse’s victims as “victims” and encouraged a round of applause for a defense witness on the stand because he was a veteran.
We don’t know exactly what the jury’s reasoning was in rendering its verdict – jury deliberations happen in secret, so unless jurors choose to discuss the experience afterward, we will not get a view into how they made their decisions or what pieces of evidence were most compelling to them. But it appears that with evidence supporting both narratives, the jurors concluded that the prosecution failed to meet its burden – and based on this record, it’s impossible to find fault with that.
This issue – whether a defendant acted reasonably in a stressful moment – is a quintessential jury question. This is exactly why we have a jury system where 12 members of the community come together to judge their fellow man. We, as a democracy, prefer the law to be administered by a group of ordinary individuals who rely on common sense and everyday experiences to reach a collective decision.
Without question, Rittenhouse did not have to be in Kenosha with his weapon strapped across his body as he ran around the streets in what was clearly an unpredictable and ultimately dangerous situation. If he had exercised better judgment and decided not to go that night, Rosenbaum and Huber would almost certainly still be alive. But in Wisconsin, that initial decision, as poor a decision as it was, does not constitute a crime, and the jury found his later actions justified.
Those of us who don’t want to have to worry about whether people like Kyle Rittenhouse will continue to brandish guns at public gatherings, thereby greatly increasing the danger of violence, should direct our energy toward changing the open carry laws in Wisconsin.
Public sentiment after an episode that is viewed as unfair – and there are plenty of people who are incensed that Rittenhouse went free because of a self-defense claim when he placed himself in the situation in the first place – can spark change. For example, in Georgia, after the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery, the legislature repealed the citizen’s arrest law that Arbery’s alleged killer and his co-defendants are relying on for their defense (although the defendants in the Arbery killing are still able to assert it).
If public concern about Rittenhouse’s conduct and its results leads to a re-examination of Wisconsin’s gun laws, that will be one positive thing to come out of this tragic episode.