As an attorney I am required to respect a verdict I intensely disagree with.
But there is no doubt in my mind that, as a matter of law, Kyle Rittenhouse had viable alternatives to patrolling the streets of Kenosha with an AR-15-style rifle that humid, Midwest summer evening when he fatally shot two people and injured a third.
He chose otherwise, and that choice should have had legal consequences.
Instead, he was found not guilty of five charges on Friday, Nov. 19.
Defense vs. prosecution
Rittenhouse's attorneys coached him well. In contrast to the wannabe G.I. JOE that the prosecution tried to paint Rittenhouse as, the defense presented an entirely different young man: Cooperative, demure, thoughtful and potentially suffering from PTSD; a hero, even.
During the trial, Rittenhouse appeared to cry on cue and explained things using precise legal language. So, when time came for jury instructions, a direct line could be drawn from the events of that day to Rittenhouse's self-defense claims.
While much has and will be made of the prosecution's poor performance, I think the blame lies elsewhere. Even before Judge Bruce Schroeder's questionable in court behavior, in the pre-trial phase, the judge kept prosecutors from offering evidence of Rittenhouse’s association with the alt-right group the Proud Boys and his prior, and arguably relevant, statements about wanting to shoot unarmed civilians with an AR-15 over property crimes. And during trial, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger poked holes in Rittenhouse's lawful self-defense claims on cross-examination, and in his closing arguments.
That's because "self-defense" and "lawful self-defense" are not the same.
In common law doctrine people are allowed to defend themselves against a perceived imminent attack. But there are rules and exceptions, including proportionality and provocation. Binger did a good job emphasizing this in closing arguments when he told the jury, "You cannot claim self-defense against a danger that you create."
Even if he did not set out to kill anyone, Rittenhouse should have anticipated that, as a civilian patrolling the streets with an AR-15 during a protest that was getting progressively out of control, he might end up killing someone, or get killed himself. He was, in fact, the only person that night who killed anyone.
A free man
Kyle Rittenhouse is hardly the first beneficiary of lethal self-defense or the first to take advantage of white privilege in the justice system. In 2012, I was in law school when George Zimmerman fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Orlando, Florida. My law school friends and I all watched the trial closely, and Zimmerman's acquittal was deeply disheartening. We had made big sacrifices to study law and dedicate our lives to the practice of upholding the constitution and its core values; my colleagues and I zealously believed that the halls of justice should be for everyone.
I still believe that to be true. But today I feel torn.
On the one hand, I want to reiterate that Rittenhouse's ability, as a white man, to walk the streets armed with military-style weapons and live to see trial is exactly the racial injustice that people were protesting that fateful night in Kenosha.
And regardless of the outcome, I see no justice in a trial that has helped to surface the absolute worst of this country: If as a nation we are OK with behavior like Rittenhouse's, and his claiming self-defense – if that is the message that American wants to send to its citizens and the world – then this nation must surely be doomed.
Yet I must remain optimistic. That day's result does not eclipse decades of blood, sweat and tears that civil rights activists have shed trying to achieve the ideals written in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
The verdict is just another reminder that this fight is far from over in the honorable, timeless pursuit of "liberty and justice for all."
Carli Pierson is an attorney, former professor of law and Opinion writer at USA TODAY. You can follow her on Twitter @CarliPiersonEsq
This article originally appeared on Wichita Falls Times Record News: Rittenhouse verdict shows we're far from ideals