Because I started my blogging “career” as a gun blogger, the fact that I haven’t posted about the Rittenhouse case may have surprised a few longtime readers. However, I chose to refrain from commenting about it because I wanted to have access to all of the evidence before making an ass out of myself (better to be an ass who analyzed the evidence than an ass who didn’t).
Fortunately, the entire trial was livestreamed. Rather than listen to my usual assortment of podcasts while I worked, I opted to listen to the livestream of the trial. This gave me the opportunity to hear both the prosecution’s and defense’s cases. Based on the cases put forth I agree with the jury’s decision to find Rittenhouse not guilty on all charges.
A quick browsing of Twitter shows that a lot of people disagree with the jury’s verdict. It also shows me that many of the people expressing the strongest opinions, as is the tradition of online debates, didn’t watch the trial and misunderstand how the justice system in the United States is supposed to work (which is different than how it often works).
Let’s start with what I consider to be one of the most important characteristics of a functional justice system: presumption of innocence. When the state brings charges against an individual, the individual is assumed to be innocent. This means that the burden is placed on the state to prove the individual is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. If you watched the trial, you saw how weak the prosecution’s case was. By the end of the trial the prosecution was leaning almost exclusively on video captured from a drone. The prosecution claimed that the video showed Rittenhouse aiming his rifle at people. This according to the prosecution proved that Rittenhouse instigated the situation and therefore lost the right to claim self-defense. Setting aside the minutia of self-defense law (what qualifies as instigation, when you lose the right to claim self-defense, when you regain the right to claim self-defense, etc.) the drone footage didn’t conclusively show Rittenhouse aiming his gun at people, which means the evidence didn’t prove the prosecution’s argument beyond a reasonable doubt.
I’m highlighting the drone footage because it allows me to segue into another point: trials have rules. A lot of rules. One rule is that the defense must be given access to the prosecution’s evidence. The prosecution provided the defense with a compressed copy of the drone footage. The defense brought this up in trial. A lot of online publications tried to make this sounds like the defense was desperate, but it was raising legitimate concerns about artifacts that are introduced when video files are compressed. Miraculously the prosecution produced a higher resolution version of the video footage and asked to show it to the jury… without first give the defense reasonable time to analyze it. This lead to the defense filing a motion for mistrial. Again online publications tried to make the motion sound like a desperate last ditch effort by a losing defense, but in actuality the motion was filed because the prosecution broke the rules.
This segues into a third point. Judges are basically referees. They ensure both the defense and prosecution (as well as everybody else in the courtroom) play by the rules. A lot of people accused the judge of (amongst other things) being biased in favor of the defense. Having watched the trial I can’t agree with those accusations. The judge came off to me as being pretty fair. Some of his actions did favor the defense, but some of his actions also favored the prosecution. The most obvious action he took that favored the prosecution was not declaring a mistrial (I believe the motion for a mistrial had merit and the judge would have been well within his rights to declare a mistrial).
These are just a few highlights that I chose to explain some of the important features of a trial. In truth the prosecution made a pitiful showing. Not only did it bring a weak case, but it violated some major rules (bringing up the fact Rittenhouse choice to exercise is Fifth Amendment right, which is a big no-no for a prosecutor, being one of the more egregious violations).
So, despite what many Twitter users seem to believe, a criminal trial is not meant to be a mere formality that enacts the desires of the loudest majority. It’s meant to be a strictly defined process to determine whether a person is guilty of a crime. While you’ll find no shortage of criticisms of the United States justice system coming from me, in this case I believe that the trial was executed more or less appropriately and the verdict was correct based on the arguments made by the defense and prosecution.
What annoys me most about this case is that even though the video footage of the entire trial is readily available on sites like YouTube, people will continue to spout falsehoods about it and the events that lead up to it. I still see a lot of tweets claiming that Rittenhouse illegally crossed state lines with his rifle or was illegally in possession of the rifle because he was a minor (those who watched the trial know that neither statement is correct). I also see a lot of tweets accusing the judge of being biased or a white supremacist (which mostly derive from a joke he made about Asian food that was actually, and pretty obviously in context, a joke about the current supply chain issues). Nothing the judge said during the trial leads me to believe he’s a white supremacist (and considering all three of the individuals Rittenhouse shot were white, I’m not sure why this is something people are wasting so much bandwidth arguing) and, as I wrote previously, his actions didn’t indicate any obvious bias.