A Tale of Two Trials

This week, verdicts were rendered in two murder trials. In Kenosha, Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges against him for killing two men and injuring a third. In Brunswick, Georgia, all three defendants were found guilty in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.

Spoiler alert: I agree with both juries and their findings on all counts. I’m not alone, but my reasons may differ from others, so read on.

For those not entirely familiar, Kyle Rittenhouse is the kid who went to Kenosha during the riots there in August 2020. Only 17 at the time, his explanation was that he wanted to protect property from looters and administer medical aid. Rittenhouse lived in Illinois, so he had to cross state lines to get to Kenosha. Too young to purchase the gun he carried, an AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle, he had an older friend buy it for him in Wisconsin. Ironically, that friend may be facing serious prison time for supplying a gun to a minor resulting in death, while the minor who pulled the trigger, and was tried as an adult, is walking free today.

Armed with his new toy, on August 25, 2020, Rittenhouse spent the evening walking the streets of Kenosha loaded for bear. He has always maintained that he carried the assault rifle only for protection, but he could just as easily have protected himself with a holstered handgun. By the way, it should be pointed out that he wasn’t the only amateur enforcer there that night. Unsanctioned militiamen calling themselves the Kenosha Guard came to Kenosha to play army, too. There’ no evidence, of which I’m aware, that they inspired Rittenhouse. I only mention this because the presence of these self-appointed militiamen has been blamed by some for escalating the violence.

But back to Kyle. Here’s this high school kid, too young to buy the gun he’s carrying, too young to join the military, too young even to order a beer or buy cigarettes, playing soldier with real ammunition. Pictures and videos show him walking around in a backwards baseball cap, locked and loaded, a boy who had yet to shed his baby fat. During his testimony, and upon the reading of the verdict, he broke down like a blubbering child. Not a tough, battle-hardened cop or soldier, but a child not mature or sensible enough to understand what he was getting himself into.

Others besides Rittenhouse and the militia members were carrying firearms that fateful night. However, most weapons were rocks, debris, and incendiary devices. Rittenhouse got in the thick of this, and amid the confusion, he shot and killed two men and wounded another. He claimed it was all done in self-defense, and the jury bought it.

“Rittenhouse, in essence, was the victor of a state-sanctioned duel — when everyone is armed, whomever squeezes the trigger first gets to claim self-defense.”  — Philadelphia Inquirer, Nov. 22. 2021

The aftermath of the trial has been just as disturbing. Rittenhouse, it seems, has become the darling of conservative-leaning media, politicians, and activists. He was reportedly offered, or at least considered, for a Congressional internship; there was even talk of him running for office. Rittenhouse has never spent a day in college and has no experience that would qualify him for any of this. Based solely on his visit to Kenosha, he has become the poster boy for far right-wingers wanting to thumb their noses at gun control advocates. 

Rittenhouse was interviewed on Fox, and the same station is working on a documentary based on footage and interviews collected during the trial and after. That’s right, even before a verdict was ever reached, the conservative media was preparing to turn the kid into an example of the oppression that supporters of the Second Amendment have to endure. Donald Trump, never one to pass up an opportunity to draw attention to himself, got his picture taken with Rittenhouse. Smiling for the camera, both flashed the thumbs-up sign. Seriously.

Some will go on hailing Rittenhouse as an example of why the Second Amendment exists, namely self-defense. They will be wrong. But don’t misunderstand me. Under Wisconsin law the verdict was fair, if highly unpalatable. Rittenhouse’s attorneys did a superb job of proving that the boy only shot out of a reasonable fear of being killed himself. After listening to all witnesses and seeing the video footage, a jury reasonably inferred from the evidence that this was the case.

But here’s the thing: he shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Not just because of his age, but because Kyle Rittenhouse was asking for trouble in an already volatile place. Instead of helping the situation, he escalated it. Instead of handling things right, as a trained officer or National Guardsman would have, he put himself squarely into circumstances he had no more business being in the middle of than the other rioters and looters.

Now, some of you may be thinking I’m one of those gun haters who want to take your guns away. You’d be wrong on both counts. I don’t hate guns; I hate what they do when put in the wrong hands in the wrong situation. I believe in the Second Amendment. I believe it’s every person’s right to arm themselves for protection or even for sport. I just don’t believe in a wild west version of settling disputes and meting out justice. 

Which brings me to the second trial, the Ahmaud Arbery murder trial in Georgia. 

Ahmaud Arbery, a young Black man, had just committed the crime of going inside an unfinished, unsecured house under construction. In other words, he committed a trespass, a misdemeanor under Georgia law. For his crime, Arbery is dead. On the other hand, videos show that several people, including young White kids, had gone in the building as well, likely out of simple curiosity because, like Arbery, they didn’t steal anything. These kids probably got a stiff lecture from their parents and maybe a loss of privileges. At least that was the punishment my parents gave me for doing exactly same thing.

Without getting into all the facts, which are available elsewhere on the internet, Arbery was hunted down by three white men, Travis McMichael, his father Greg McMichael, and William “Roddie” Bryan. The first two were armed with a shotgun and handgun, respectively, and the third carried only a phone camera. Arbery was unarmed. After chasing Arbery up and down neighborhood streets, the three finally cornered him between their two trucks. A scuffle ensued during which Arbery was shot three times by Travis McMichael. Arbery collapsed and died on the street.

Claiming self-defense, the three defendants walked free for a while. At the time, there was a law on the books allowing a citizen’s arrest where a felony has been committed and the arrestors have first-hand knowledge of the crime, and the three claimed that was what they were exercising. But Arbery hadn’t committed a felony at all. Further, his pursuers had only heard from others that this might be the perp who’d been committing crimes in the neighborhood. None of them had any real knowledge of what Arbery had or had not done.

Much has been made of the racial implications of this case, but for our purposes here, that’s a red herring. Suffice it to say that a good circumstantial case could be made out for a hate crime. One of the defense attorneys, Laura Hogue, didn’t help matters when, in her bumbling closing argument, she described Arbery as having long, dirty toenails, an apparent reference to runaway slaves. Her comment elicited gasps from the gallery and condemnation by much of the media covering the trial. Such a misstep shows that she was either foolish or desperate, apparently thinking that race-baiting the nearly all white jury might get an acquittal for her client, Greg McMichael.

It backfired. Aside from sullying her reputation, her client may have grounds for an ineffective assistance of counsel appeal. Why do I say this? Because this jury of 11 Whites and one Black (thanks to peremptory challenges by the defense), completely rejected her Jim Crow gambit. Together, these good citizens sent a message: Don’t ask us to go along with your game. This is the 21st century. It’s wrong to go around toting dangerous weapons and using them on the streets against anyone. Period. 

But the lesson from the Arbery case (among other lessons not covered here) is that it’s a bad idea to go around playing cops and robbers. Just as in the Rittenhouse case, unless you have a badge or official military garb, you have no better authority to be carrying a gun than anyone else on the street. Your intentions are never going to be clear. The Arbery case accentuates this notion because Travis McMichael is a Coast Guard veteran, and his father Greg is a former law enforcement officer. Both were trained in deescalating violence yet look what happened with them. Injecting yourself into a dangerous conflict while carrying a firearm is just asking for trouble. Someone is likely to get hurt or worse.

For this reason, the Georgia legislature has since repealed its citizen’s arrest law. More needs to be done, however. Better gun laws—sensible gun laws—are needed throughout this country. Just yesterday, news stations reported that Philadelphia had reached 500 homicides for the year. How many of them were caused by guns? 

Guns should be regulated, but there are ways to do this without taking them away from law-abiding citizens. If a law had been in place in Wisconsin requiring a minimum jail sentence for any unauthorized person carrying a gun during a declared emergency, Rittenhouse may not have come to Kenosha. Even if he defied such a law, he would be doing time right now, sending a message to all others who would consider doing the same. 

Likewise, if a strict law had been on the books in Georgia forbidding the carrying of a firearm on a public street, Ahmaud Arbery might still be alive. The police showed up shortly after Arbery was shot, meaning that his pursuers could have easily let the police know which direction he’d gone and let them handle it. That’s what responsible neighborhood watch groups do. It’s what police instruct them to do: be the eyes and ears, but don’t take the law into your own hands.

Of course, there will always be resistance to regulation and restriction on use of firearms, and I get that. Second Amendment advocates feel any regulation is a slippery slope leading to a full ban. That’s part of the reason it’s so difficult to get any sensible laws passed. It’s a hot button, a topic fraught with emotion much like abortion rights. No one wants to act like adults and look for common ground. Instead, everything is turned into a political statement. Politicians divide us to get elected. Media stars press our buttons so they can get better ratings. Meanwhile, we are destroying ourselves—but what do they care? 

Three men are dead. Three men are going to jail for a long time. These cases are only a small example of what is wrong with America today. We are all victims—but also enablers—in a game of manipulation and deceit. We take sides in an all-or-nothing, take-no-prisoners war. No one wins this war. We’ll all lose in the end unless we begin to realize who the enemy really is.