By Sam Hoober
A jury in Wisconsin did the right thing and acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse. While a person could point out that he put himself in the situation to begin with (totally true; he could have stayed home) the video evidence is incontrovertible.
He defended himself. Period. To pretend otherwise is to be disingenuous on purpose or to delude one’s self.
However, if you’re an armed citizen, this is what should scare the hell out of you: the only thing that kept this young man out of prison was the gun charge getting tossed. While the jury came back with the right decision, the margins for victory were slimmer than you might think.
Wisconsin law, as was discussed plenty in the news cycle concerning the trial, abrogates the ability of a defendant to claim self-defense if the act occurred during the commission of a crime. If Rittenhouse was deemed to illegally possess the rifle, that would be a crime in and of itself and he couldn’t claim self-defense, and it’s likely he would have been convicted of at least one of the lesser charges.
However, as we also learned, the gun charge was undone by Wisconsin law as well. This is why a great deal of state laws (especially criminal statutes) are definitions; when the meaning of things are spelled out, there’s less ambiguity which is generally to everyone’s benefit.
The prohibition on underage possession of weapons goes toward “dangerous weapons,” which generally means anything other than conventional shoulder-fired shotguns and rifles with NFA-compliant (16 inches or longer) barrel length, as specified in WSL 941.28.
That got the gun charge tossed (the curfew charge was also dismissed early) and opened the door to claiming self-defense. As we saw in the trial, the prosecution’s case revolved around provocation, which was too weak to secure a conviction.
So let’s leave everything else about this case behind. Forget arguing about why he went there, forget the nature of the people who he was defending himself from (they certainly weren’t trying to tell him the Good News About Jesus) and think real good and hard about this:
In the broad strokes, he got off on a technicality.
If whatever lawyers that the various news services got to sound off about it are correct, the reason the defense was able to claim self-defense is that the gun charge got tossed. With that door open, the rest of the evidence was just too compelling to argue anything but self-defense. With the gun charge in play it really might not have gone that way.
And it wasn’t the first time prosecutorial bungling resulted in a high-profile acquittal.
The George Zimmerman case resulted in acquittal partially because the prosecutor got greedy and only charged him with murder in the second degree. It wasn’t the only factor, but one of the largest contributing factors (besides factual innocence!) was that ADA Angela Corey was trying to get the biggest sentence she could due for purposes of public relations.
So aside from the more salacious political ramifications, here are some takeaways to think about:
No matter how seemingly obvious an instance of self-defense is, the authorities will try to put you in prison if it happens under circumstances that create a public outcry. The nail that sticks up gets pounded down.
We all know there are ideal instances of self-defense (home invasion, mugging, carjacking, bank robbery) and there are instances that are in grayer areas. The further away you get from the latter, the more likely you are to be prosecuted or vilified.
Therefore, it’s a good idea to be careful about what you get yourself into.
Journalism ethics classes profess that the professional journalist is supposed to “serve the public with thoroughness and honesty.” What news media outlets actually do is frame stories because of how it will play with their readers. That gets views, clicks, gets people to subscribe to paywalls and sells ad space.
If you get mixed up in something, the Fourth Estate will demonize you if they think it will get over with their audience.
And sometimes the margin for victory in court is slimmer than you might think. It’s frightening to think of one’s freedom hanging in the balance on a technicality.
Thankfully, the conclusion of this trial really seems to be the right one. Unfortunately, the news media and a certain segment of the population wanted this young man drawn and quartered for daring to defend himself against a violent mob that was feigning “protest” over racial injustice but revealed themselves to only be there for the violence.
One hopes he’ll be able to find some anonymity and not have to live as a pariah.
Sam Hoober is a hunter and shooter based in the Inland Northwest.