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Semiautomatic Tears: An Exploration of the Rittenhouse Trial

Kyle Rittenhouse has just been cleared of all charges. For those among you who have followed the trial (or not, opinions are a dime a piece anyway) you may take several things from this (depending on your political sympathies). The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse has gone a long way in galvanising elements of both the right and left. The Youth has been ardently defended with calls of “Self-defence” and admonished based on his perceived privilege. Rittenhouse was originally charged based on a series of incidents at the protests addressing the shooting of Jacob Blake at the hands of a Kenosha police officer in Wisconsin last year. Rittenhouse shot three men, killing two and wounding the remaining one. He faced multiple counts, including intentional homicide (AP), the punishment for which charge would cost him the rest of his life behind bars. Nevertheless, the trial appears to have worked out in his favour. What happened, and why?

Legal Experts claimed that Rittenhouse benefited from his calm demeanour during cross-examination by the Prosecution. They called Rittenhouse to the stand while attempting to build credibility under the charge of intentional homicide, one of the more serious larges levied at Rittenhouse. The Defence attempted to demonstrate that his actions were motivated by a desire for self-defence. The “Self-Defence” defence requires that Accused demonstrate he had a reasonable fear of his life and that his response to the threat qualifies as “appropriate force.” Rittenhouse testified that the three men had pushed his hands, claiming Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber—the men he killed—and threatened death upon him, chasing him and trying to disarm him. He also recounted that Gaige Grosskreutz had pointed a gun at him. Experts claim that his response aided in substantiating his Defence and humanised Rittenhouse. “He showed himself to be very human” Phil Turner, a Chicago-based former federal Prosecutor told AP.

Many have criticised the Prosecution for what they see as an unconvincing line of attack. They attempted to establish the guilt of Rittenhouse by asserting his intention to kill all three men—which Rittenhouse vehemently and repeatedly denied—while relying upon the previous argument of self-defence. The Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger, one of the prosecutors, also pursued a line of inquiry relying on the old arguments that violent video games corrupt the Youth by asking Rittenhouse if he played any “shoot-‘em-up” video games. Moreover, the Prosecution’s arguments were weakened by the Judge on the case refusing to admit into evidence a damning video showcasing Rittenhouse, 15 days before the protests, telling his friend that he would like to shoot suspected shoplifters. Despite the video not being admitted into evidence, the Prosecution pursued a line of questioning based on the content of the video, how effective that was is difficult to say (but in my estimation it was a doomed strategy from the off-set).

Former Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher claimed that through the trial, Rittenhouse seemed “well-prepared” and that the choice to testify “strengthened the defence” with Rittenhouse maintaining himself throughout non-argumentative and non-evasive. Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, took this one step further relating that she felt that Rittenhouse’s testimony had seemed “quite coached.” Whether the Prosecution coached Rittenhouse before the testimony, or if his reactions and boundless tears were genuine ones can only speculate. The only thing that can be known with any certainty is that it worked. In the wake of the dropping of all charges, social media has erupted in protest. Many elements of the left accuse the Judge of bias, citing examples of strange behaviour and mannerisms which supposedly reveal his political sympathies (if you know what I mean). These political voices have levied a comparison of self-defence cases where black men were involved and emphasised the much more negative reception of their pleas and arguments in comparison to Rittenhouse. The argument is that through institutionalised racism in the courts—given the advanced ages of judges (things weren’t very peachy for black people in the US when they were young)—a white face become a poster child for innocence and receives calls of support and “compassion.” Meanwhile, a black face receives a decidedly different reception, with calls reminiscent of the “super-predator” comments made by a young Hillary Clinton (I did tell you things were not peachy for black people back then.)

Rittenhouse had shot the three men with an AR-style rifle, yet the Judge did not even consider the gun possession charge (a charge with the protection had considered an immediate victory) although Rittenhouse was seventeen-years-old when the protests occurred, and no one disputes that Rittenhouse was armed at the event, bearing the semi-automatic riffled on his chest like some kind of baby-faced jarhead. Although the gun possession charge was only a misdemeanour, it opened doors for the Prosecution to convict Rittenhouse of a lesser crime in case the “self-defence” defence persuaded the Judge after all. Hours before the closing arguments of the trial the judge granted a motion to disregard the gun possession charge. Rittenhouse’s attorneys cited a law that they claimed allowed minors to possess shotguns and rifles (as long as they are not short-barrelled). Once the Judge ascertained that the barrel of Rittenhouse’s rifle was indeed longer than 16 inches (the minimum length allowed under state law) he dismissed the charge. Some have hit back claiming the overarching law is clear on the prohibition of underage individuals possessing or being armed with a “generous weapon,” and that under the law that should constitute a Class A misdemeanour. But the Defence applied to a specific subsection of the law which supports their point, but which is not specific to minors, and simply forbids any person from having a short-barrelled shotgun or rifle.

The laws around underage possession of firearms are complicated, but before 1987 the possession of pistols by children had been banned, with a Republican governor extending it to short-barrelled firearms among other weapons (including throwing stars if you’ll believe that). The portion of law cited by the Defence—the one concerning the “short-barrelled” argument— supposedly confused the Judge himself upon first hearing it, although he would move to accept it. Jeri Bonavia, director of the Anti-Violence Effort, a group working to reduce gun violence in the US, claimed that the National Rifle Association (NRA) pushed for legislation that made it easier to get guns into the hands of children as part of their strategy to build “lifetime gun owners” and that the “short-barrelled” carve-out within the law is part of this effort to leave opportunities for underage gun ownership. Essentially minors can possess a long gun in Wisconsin as long as they are not sawed-off. Bonavia related concerns over this, claiming that “there are many things we don’t allow young people to do.” Meanwhile, Tom Grieve, a Milwaukee Attorney and former Waukesha County Prosecutor claimed that the long-gun exemption to that law was part of an effort to ensure children could hunt in the state of Wisconsin given that the country of the state revolved around hunting: “when people talk about long arms, they are thinking in the hunting context,” he states. Conversely, Democrat Jon Erpenbach, a member of the Wisconsin State Senate since 1998, said he did not know the exact history of the development of the “long-gun” exception but could not imagine it intended to allow children to parade the streets with semiautomatic rifles.

Rittenhouse employed the firearm while trying to provide “security” at the protests in Kenosha, acting in an extra-judicial manner and arguably contributing to the raising of tensions at the protest. Those who came to protest the death and treatment of Jacob Blake by Wisconsin Police were met with a sight which to them spelt the life-blood of the system they are rallying against: a white teenager emboldened by an increasingly polarised environment to exert the threat of violence upon black people. Whether you believe Kyle Rittenhouse was guilty of the charges levied at him, I think discussions around the legality of the act are beside the point. The laws used by the Defence as justification for Rittenhouse’s innocence are historically linked to effort by the US gun lobby to pad its profit margins and now have been construed in such a way as to justify a minor making headway into vigilantism at protests. Whether his actions were criminal or not does matter: that fact they should be construed as legal in the first place is itself frightening, and the precedent it sets is up to discussions of the most macabre nature. Will this embolden other young people—especially young white men—to take arms in some misguided attempt at providing “security” at protests, to openly wield weapons in a setting where such an act is likely to inflame tensions? Even assuming Rittenhouse had the best of intentions—we’ll give that to him just this once—who is to say the next one will? The only difference is next time they will be able to rely on legal precedent…how amazing.


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