The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse for the shooting deaths of two people and the wounding of a third in Wisconsin produced quite a few narratives.
In the courtroom, the defense argued that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense during the protests in Kenosha last year, while the prosecution maintained that Rittenhouse was a reckless teenage vigilante.
Outside the courtroom, in the news and on social media, experts and novices alike posited their own narratives. For some, the case was about how the country embraced or rejected the Black Lives Matter protests.
That is all understandable, given the intense scrutiny of the case and the trial. America is a highly polarized place right now, and this trial was one more venue for our emotional disagreements to play out.
Fortunately, in this country, criminal trials are not about narratives; they are about fact-based justice. Prosecutor Thomas Binger told the jury in his closing argument, “Look for the truth. So many people look at this case and they see what they want to see.”
Binger failed to prove his case, but his charge to the jury was correct. Juries are charged with setting aside biases, outside influences and perceived notions and making their decisions based only on their understanding of the evidence and the instructions given to them by the judge.
Prosecutors have a high bar. Defendants come to court with a presumption of innocence and the state must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury’s decision to convict (or acquit) must be unanimous.
The legal community is forever studying and writing about biases in the jury process. Monied defendants have an advantage. People of color are more likely to be convicted. Juries sometimes ignore the facts and mete out their own form of justice. On and on.
Yet the jury system prevails because a trial in front of a jury of peers following the rules of evidence remains the fairest way for society to administer justice. Yes, mistakes are made in a trial, but defendants are entitled to a fair trial, not a perfect one, and there is always the right to appeal a conviction.
The jury trial has its roots in English law, and is enshrined in the United States Constitution in both Article III, Section 2 and the Sixth Amendment. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury.”
Thomas Jefferson said, “I consider trial by jury as the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which government can be held to the principles of its constitution.”
Good people everywhere in this county can agree or disagree with the outcome of Kyle Rittenhouse case, and the verdict will be co-opted by some with their own agendas.
But the integrity of our institutions and our faith in them are integral to a civil society, and none is more important than our criminal justice system.
And in the case of Kyle Rittenhouse, the jury has spoken.