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Justice for Some?

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Justice is supposed to be blind. In fact, the very image of justice is a blindfold person holding the scales of justice.

Yet, there are two high profile cases where presumption of innocence is being challenged. By placing the burden of proof on the prosecution, our legal system is allowing those who obviously committed an illegal offense to go free. And the tenet of a reasonable doubt has allowed juries to ignore overwhelming evidence to acquit those who are undeniably guilty.

The American system of justice is broken.

The Rittenhouse Case

The verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial is in and legal scholars will tell you that it was the proper one under the law. They will tell you that under Wisconsin law Kyle Rittenhouse was within his legal rights to defend himself against what he saw as a personal attack. They will point to other issues, Rittenhouse’s testimony, poor performance by the prosecution, and even muddled instructions to the jury by a judge who exhibited bias throughout the trial.

But the major issue used by the defense was that Rittenhouse was within his rights; that he only acted in the a manner he did to defend himself. In fact, his intent on being there that fateful night was to assist law enforcement and provide medical assistance. He brought the firearm along to defend a business from protestors seeking justice for Jacob Blake, a Black man who was shot seven times while trying to evade arrest.

If you’re getting a headache from trying to follow this “logic”, you are not alone. The self-defense defense is as twisted as a Kevin McCarthy filibuster. It required the jury to believe that Rittenhouse crossed state lines with a firearm that he wasn’t legally supposed to possess and went in search of protesters who were nowhere near the business he said he was protecting, yet while several others were seen carrying weapons, he was the only one who killed anyone.

But all of this didn’t matter to the defense-friendly judge , Bruce Schroeder, who presided over the case. Prior to the trial, the judge prohibited the term “victims” from being used in reference to those murdered by Rittenhouse. Instead, he allowed the defense to call them “rioters”. He repeatedly clashed with the prosecution and it was entirely possible that, if the verdict was different, he would have vacated it by declaring a mistrial that would not permit Rittenhouse from being re-tried.

And in another shocking move, the judge removed the one charge that, if acquitted of the murder charges, would have guaranteed that Rittenhouse serve some jail time. The charge of illegal possession of a firearm by a minor, which should have been a slam dunk for the prosecution, was thrown out. Schroeder allowed a defense motion to remove the charge, citing a nitpicking clause in the law that addressed the length of the barrel of the firearm.

When it came time for the case to be given to the jury, Judge Schroeder issued a rambling, sometimes incoherent set of instructions that Schroeder himself had to stop issuing mid sentence as he struggled to explain them. The judge then made the unusual move of allowing a juror to bring the instructions home. And finally, in an obvious effort to humanize Rittenhouse, the judge allowed him to select the final jury panel.

Rittenhouse is being portrayed as a right wing hero. Even before the verdict, Fox was granted exclusive access to Rittenhouse, and is using this to promote a documentary about the trial. While Fox has denied giving him any financial compensation, their coverage has certainly encouraged its viewers to send in their contributions.

In the MAGA world, Republicans in Congress are offering Rittenhouse an internship so he might be used as a political pawn in upcoming elections. And those on the right are loving it! They are embracing Rittenhouse and the verdict as vindication of their “Second Amendment rights”. Yet, they are threatening to unleash a new group of vigilantes who see the verdict as an open invitation to take matters into their own hands.

Legal scholars will admit that the jurors in the Rittenhouse case were correct in their verdict by following Wisconsin laws. And yet, two men are dead and one severely injured. Doesn’t that indicate there is something wrong with the law?

The Ahmaud Arbery Trial

The other high profile trial currently in the news is the one concerning the three men charged with murdering Ahmaud Arbery. Even the way it is referred to by the media reflects a certain bias. While the one trial refers to the accused, this slanted wording makes it appear that the victim is on trial.

Some may argue that, with three defendants on trial, the wording is simply a matter of journalistic brevity, others will assume that it was Arbery’s actions that precipitated the events that led to his murder.

Nevertheless, there are definite similarities between the two trials. Both are influenced by racially motivated defendants. In the Rittenhouse case, the circumstances surrounding the murders of two protesters was the Jacob Blake shooting. In the case of Ahmaud Arbery, his is being viewed as another case of simply being Black as evidence of a criminal act.

Like the Rittenhouse trial, one of the defendants is attempting to claim self defense as a reason for murdering Arbery. Travis McMichael’s assertion that he only shot Arbery because the latter tried to grab his gun flies in the face of the fact the three men chased Arbery. They claimed they were making a citizen’s arrest for a crime they alleged Arbery committed. They cited other crimes in the neighborhood as reason for them to suspect Arbery, despite having zero evidence of any wrongdoing.

The defense made no attempt to hide its racist attitudes as their White defendants faced conviction for murdering a Black jogger. Defense attorney Kevin Gough lamented that there weren’t “more Bubbas”, AKA racist White men, on the jury. He later complained that there were too many Black pastors in the visitor’s gallery, and demanded the judge exclude them from future courtroom proceedings. He then compared the gathering of Black pastors engaged in a prayer vigil on the courthouse steps to “a lynching”, using the racist term for illegal hangings conducted by the KKK as a means of intimidation.

While a verdict has not been reached in this trial, the outcome threatens to ignite a racial powder keg as yet another racially motivated incident divides America. Indeed, the case would have never been brought to trial if a video of the murder had not been released. Until the video was leaked to the press, law enforcement did not pursue charges against any of the defendants.

What’s Next?

A study by Gonzaga University compiled a list of over one thousand Black men, women and children who died at the hands of police. There has also been a rise in Kens and Karens, White people who needlessly accuse Blacks of wrongdoings for carrying out everyday activities such as jogging, cooking out, or even being a licensed realtor showing a home. The verdict in the Rittenhouse case and the potential verdict in the Arbery trial threaten to embolden White supremacists as they view their role as vigilantes as something that has been legally sanctioned.

The justice system in America needs to be fixed. And it will not be until systematic racism is eliminated from law enforcement and the courtrooms of our nation. Denying it exists is not the answer.

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