Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty. Not guilty.
As the five acquittals were read on Friday — clearing Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges in the killings of two men and the wounding of a third during a protest against the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year — the judge presiding over the case praised the 12 jurors for their attentiveness, saying he “couldn’t have asked for a better jury.”
Since the racial justice protests following the police murder of George Floyd last summer, much attention has focused on racially biased policing. But the past week of trials for Rittenhouse and the men accused of killing Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia have pulled back the curtain on a critical but often hidden driver of bias in our legal system — the courts.
Typically, courtroom drama happens out of the public eye. But the Rittenhouse case was televised on cable news, with the country seeing for itself the machinations of the system playing out in real time.
From the start, the judge in the Wisconsin case ruled that prosecutors could not call the men Rittenhouse shot “victims” but defense attorneys could call them “arsonists” or “looters.” Later, during the trial, Judge Bruce Schroeder allowed Rittenhouse to randomly select from a raffle drum the alternate jurors who would decide his case.
In the Georgia trial of William “Roddie” Bryan, Greg McMichael and his son Travis McMichael — the men who are accused of killing Arbery in 2020 for the crime of jogging while Black — the jury includes 11 white members and one Black member, in a county where the population is more than a quarter African American. The racial makeup of the jury came after the defense removed eight Black jurors from the pool.
It may be hard for those who are just learning about bias in our legal system to understand how people who are armed with assault-style rifles and shotguns could claim self-defense in the killings of men who carried no guns themselves. But longtime observers and critics of our legal system were not surprised. The deck has always been stacked.
Author Roxane Gay tweeted on Friday, “I knew Rittenhouse would be acquitted but it is gutting to witness the inevitable, to know there will be no consequences for the judge, and to know Rittenhouse and others like him will be more emboldened to be openly white supremacist vigilantes. It’s hollowing.”
The parents of one of the men Rittenhouse shot and killed, Anthony Huber, expressed their dismay about the decision on Friday. “Today’s verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son,” Karen Bloom and John Huber wrote. “It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street. We hope that decent people will join us in forcefully rejecting that message and demanding more of our laws, our officials, and our justice system.”
According to an NAACP fact sheet, racial disparities can be found at every stage of the criminal legal system. As of October 2016, the organization’s fact sheet said, of 1,900 exonerations of the wrongfully accused, 47% of the exonerated were African American, though Black people make up just about 14% of the population. One high-profile example took place last week, as two men convicted of assassinating Malcolm X were exonerated after decades. One of the men did not live to see his name cleared.
The funnel into the racial disproportionality in convictions and exonerations starts with interactions with police. According to an initial report last week about Pierce County from the Criminal Justice Work Group — which includes members from Pierce County’s Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, the executive’s office, the Clerk of the Superior Court and the Sheriff’s Department — Pierce County sheriff’s deputies disproportionately use physical force against Black and Native American or Alaska Native residents. For example, Black residents made up 23.3% of total physical use of force incidents though only being 7% of the service population.
As some of the momentum softens toward transforming our criminal legal system, the events of the past week serve as a reminder of the distance we still have to go to truly see equal justice for all in this country. The contrast between the then-17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse walking toward police armed with a weapon of war and not even being stopped, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice shot and killed in 2014 for playing with a toy gun, says a lot about the state of our system today.
As lawyer and author Qasim Rashid tweeted Friday, “The system isnt broken—it was built this way.”