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How Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal shows the burden of the prosecution in self-defense cases

For many Americans, Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal on Friday on all charges was a vindication of an innocent, if not heroic, teenager with good intentions. For others, it was a brutal disappointment, further proof that the courts are giving white men a pass for their actions.

But for lawyers, this was not a surprise. After Mr Rittenhouse claimed he acted in self-defense when he shot three men, killing two, during the unrest following the police killing of a black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin, the onus was on the prosecution to prove otherwise.

“When people watch this and get frustrated, they don’t recognize how heavy the burden is on prosecutors here,” said Cecelia Klingele, professor of law at the University of Wisconsin. “It was a real uphill battle to get out of self-defense.”

The acquittal underscores the importance the judicial system gives to defendants who say they acted out of fear, even if others around them were also afraid.

Wisconsin’s rules for self-defense are well mainstreamed nationally. If people reasonably believe they are at risk of death or serious bodily harm, they may use lethal force. Most states say that a person who provokes violence or acts unlawfully waives their right to self-defense, but Wisconsin allows it if the person has “exhausted all other reasonable means to escape or avoid death or harm. serious bodily harm ”.

The state does not have a full-fledged “stand up to your feet” law that exists in at least 30 states, but people who think they are at risk do not have a duty to retreat if they can. .

Such rules can be combustible when juxtaposed with the state’s open porterage law, which allows for situations like the one at issue in the trial, where many foreigners were armed and took it upon themselves to maintain the order.

Self-defense laws generally do not require someone to have good judgment and tend to consider only the moments leading up to the violence, and not whether the person intentionally entered a turbulent situation or contributed to chaos.

“Are you looking at the choice to go into a heated and conflicted area with a weapon that would scare a lot of people?” Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor who teaches at Duke University School of Law, said of Mr. Rittenhouse. “You can’t really say he doesn’t have the right to do that because of the status of gun laws.”

Likewise, even though the three men on trial for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia chased him through a suburban neighborhood, they claim self-defense because, they say, Mr. Arbery tried to take control of him. a hunting rifle that one of them carried.

Gun laws have generally become more permissive – open porting is now legal, to one degree or another, in almost every state. Gun purchases have skyrocketed and the Supreme Court appears poised to remove New York State’s handgun license requirement in a Second Amendment case.

“If we want to have a country where guns are ubiquitous and the law has little or nothing to say about where and when you can carry a gun and show a gun fire, ”Mr Buell said,“ then we’re going to have a situation where the law on self-defense can’t really handle it.

The reasonable fear standard for self-defense has raised concerns that it is affected by the same racial prejudices that permeate the justice system. A mountain of social science research shows that black people, especially men, are more likely to be viewed as threatening.

“The message this case sends is to shoot first, ask questions later,” said Kami Chavis, director of the criminal justice program at Wake Forest Law. She added, “If we change the race, the age, the victims, if we change some of those dynamics, we could very well have had a different outcome.”

Mr Rittenhouse traveled to downtown Kenosha with a military-style assault rifle slung, saying he wanted to protect his property and volunteer as a medic, although he only had to 17 years old and not a certified EMT.

During the unrest, he was pursued by a man, Joseph Rosenbaum, whom Mr Rittenhouse said he feared would take control of his gun. Mr. Rittenhouse shot him and killed him. This, according to the evidence presented at trial, led members of the crowd to perceive Mr. Rittenhouse as a dangerous aggressor.

A man, Anthony Huber, used a skateboard as a weapon against him. Mr Rittenhouse shot and killed him before confronting a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz, who had drawn a handgun. Mr. Rittenhouse injured him in the arm.

Even assuming everyone involved had the best of intentions, it would be difficult to tell the attackers from the defenders. A police officer testified that so many armed people roamed the area that when Mr Rittenhouse walked up with his hands up, he made no connection to the gunfire that had occurred.

The jury was not asked to determine whether Mr. Rittenhouse had erred in bringing a firearm into an unstable situation. The only firearm charge against Mr Rittenhouse – possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under the age of 18 – was dismissed at the 11th hour. The judge agreed with a defense argument that the law provided an exception for long guns, a common provision that allows teenagers to hunt. The law was written at a time when military-style assault rifles were not widely available.

Since the 2018 Parkland, Florida school shooting in which the gunman was 19, Florida, California and Vermont have raised the age of purchasing a long gun to 21 years old, and Washington State has done the same for semi-automatic rifles.

A Gallup poll last year showed support for gun regulation, which surged after the Parkland shooting, declined during the coronavirus pandemic and an increase in violent crime. Still, a good majority of Americans support tougher gun laws.

“What happened in Kenosha was no accident,” said Nick Suplina, senior vice president for law and policy at Everytown for Gun Safety. “This is the logical consequence of state and federal laws written by the NRA and unopposed for decades.”

For many who have followed the case, especially within the political left, the verdict has raised uncomfortable questions about the scope of self-defense laws. Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway of Madison, Wisconsin called the verdict “deeply disturbing” and expressed concern about the message he sent.

“Unfortunately, this will perpetuate distrust of the justice system and further normalize gun violence,” Rhodes-Conway said in a statement. “Allowing the vigilante to disguise himself in self-defense is a terrible precedent. “

Janine Geske, a former Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who now teaches at Marquette University law school, said the trial was a case where the opinions of many on what was morally acceptable clashed with l interpretation of the jury of what the law allowed.

“I, too, share the view that if he hadn’t brought this weapon to Kenosha that day and came with his medical bag, we probably wouldn’t have had any deaths.” said Ms Geske.

Ms Geske said she believed jurors could arguably have reached a guilty verdict. They could, for example, have decided that Mr. Rittenhouse’s fear of death or grievous bodily harm was unreasonable in the situation.

“It’s difficult, because most of the victims at one point were approaching Rittenhouse,” Ms Geske said. “All of these factors made it difficult for the jury to be convinced that this was not a reasonable belief.”

nytimes Gt

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