An Armed Vigilante Got Away With Murder
Issue 7, Volume 112
In the midst of unrest in August 2020, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse traveled from Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, Wisconsin—where his father worked and where he was able to acquire a semiautomatic rifle from his friend—to act as an armed vigilante. The protests transformed into a violent riot that Rittenhouse placed himself in the middle of. He shot three men, killing two of them and seriously injuring another, and was charged with endangering the safety of two others.
A year after the incident, he has been put on trial and found not guilty on all charges. He cannot be tried again, and the decision of the jury cannot be appealed. The results of the trial reflect how laws in many states favor pro-gun sentiment, how racial bias continues to influence juries, and how confusing self-defense laws are designed in such a way that they allow people to claim self-defense against violence they have provoked. Ultimately, the trial reveals how our criminal justice system continues to allow white men to get away with violent crimes while Black and brown people can be incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.
Rittenhouse’s presence at a riot with a semiautomatic rifle may have provoked the violence that he claimed to be defending himself from. He fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, an unarmed man with significant mental health issues who spent much of his life in prison, after Rosenbaum chased him and threw a plastic bag at him. Right after, Rittenhouse was confronted by Anthony Huber, who was fatally shot, and Gaige Grosskreutz, who was seriously injured. Both Huber and Grosskreutz, among several others, believed that Rittenhouse was an active shooter, a justifiable guess given his armed state and killing of Rosenbaum. While Rittenhouse provoked the actions of Huber and Grosskreutz, who swung a skateboard at him and pointed a pistol at him, respectively, he was still able to claim self-defense.
The rules might seem murky. Judge Bruce Schroeder instructed the jury that if the defendant provoked the attack, he loses the right to self-defense. However, if he believed that the attack he provoked could cause him death or great bodily harm, then he regains the right to self-defense. This instruction contradicts itself in such a way that it allows those who provoke violence to still claim self-defense, thereby making Rittenhouse’s case for self-defense much easier. Additionally, self-defense cases place the responsibility of disproving self-defense on the prosecution rather than placing the responsibility of proving self-defense on the defense. The current laws exonerate people like Rittenhouse, who act as armed vigilantes while leaving people dead in their wake.
Even if the law can exonerate three of the charges against Rittenhouse based on the argument of self-defense, that leaves two other charges—first-degree recklessly endangering safety and use of a dangerous weapon—of which the first pertains to Rittenhouse’s actions against the journalist Richard McGinniss and the second pertains to his actions against an unknown person. Though these were less serious charges than homicide and attempted homicide, the jury could have held Rittenhouse accountable for endangering the safety of two people. These charges and another misdemeanor charge were all dismissed.
Gun laws were a crucial player in this event. Wisconsin’s open carry laws allowed the provocation by Rittenhouse and provided his cause for self-defense against Grosskreutz. Additionally, even though he was 17, a loophole found his gun barrel too long for the specific underage statute to apply. These laws aggravate gun violence and need to be changed to create better gun control laws so that similar violent attacks can be prevented.
Racial dynamics also played an important role in the Rittenhouse trial. The jury of 12 presiding over the trial was mostly white. Though this detail may not seem like a cause for inherent racial bias since both the defendant and the victims were white, the actions of Rittenhouse were taken in the middle of a protest against the shooting of a Black man. This lack of diversity in the jury of the Rittenhouse trial reflects a larger problem of racism in jury selection. Black people and other people of color are underrepresented in jury pools and overrepresented in peremptory strikes, which can be used to dismiss qualified jurors without providing a reason. More diverse juries would limit racial bias and can be achieved by reshaping the systems that are misused to prevent people of color from being represented.
Rittenhouse’s position made it easier for him to be acquitted, a fact he himself even admitted in an interview with Fox. Long before Rittenhouse was found not guilty, white conservatives had glorified him as a hero. Yet Black and brown people continue to be seen as criminals in their daily lives and can be incarcerated for crimes they did not even commit. Innocent Black people are seven times more likely than white people to be wrongfully convicted of murder, 3.5 times more likely to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault, and 12 times more likely to be convicted of drug crimes. Innocent Black people are also more likely to spend time in prison before they are exonerated. This fault in the system shows that Black people and other people of color can easily be falsely labeled as criminals while white men like Rittenhouse can get away with murder and still be celebrated.
The Rittenhouse trial reveals how pro-gun sentiment, racial bias, and the confusing structure of self-defense laws continue to influence our justice system. Trials then fail to hold people accountable for their actions. This system needs to be improved to limit racial bias, tighten gun control, and limit the extent to which self-defense can be used as a feasible argument for fairer results.