Kyle Rittenhouse's Acquittal and the Controversy Surrounding Self-Defence Laws

With respect to self-defence, existing US laws put the burden of proof on the prosecution, and not the gun wielder.

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On Friday, 19 November, a 12-member jury found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty of killing two men and injuring a third with his semi-automatic rifle during the Kenosha violence that took place amidst the 2020 racial justice protests in Wisconsin, Reuters reported.

The jury reached its decision about the 18-year-old's trial after three days of deliberations.

Rittenhouse in his dramatic defence, during which he broke into tears, claimed that he had to use his military-style rifle in self-defence after being attacked by the now deceased Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber.

"I did what I had to do to stop the person who was attacking me," he told the jury.

The burden of proof was on the prosecution to prove otherwise, and Rittenhouse was accused of being a reckless vigilante who provoked the violence.

In its closing argument, the protestation argued that "when the defendant provokes this incident, he loses the right to self-defense. You cannot claim self-defense against a danger you create," NBC reported.

Wisconsin law permits a person to use lethal force in self-defence if the threat is equally as deadly, Michael O’Hear, who teaches law in University of Wisconsin Law School, told Time magazine.

However, if a person provokes the attack, then lethal force as a means of self-defence can only be used as a last resort.

Therefore, the jury in the Kyle Rittenhouse had to deliberate on whether the defendant reasonably believed that he was going to die during the Kenosha violence.

That is difficult because after all, how does a jury enter somebody's mind to gauge their intentions?

Legal experts say that while it is understandable for people to be frustrated about the verdict, they are "not recognising just how high the prosecutors' burden is here," according to Cecelia Klingele, who teaches law at the University of Wisconsin and spoke to the New York Times after the verdict emerged.

"It was a real uphill battle to get out from under self-defence."

This article looks at the weaknesses in the United States (US) law, especially with respect to self-defence, that allowed Kyle Rittenhouse to get cleared of the charges that he was facing, that is, two counts of homicide and one count of attempted homicide, among other charges, concerning endangerment, illegally possessing a firearm, and violating curfew.


The Nature of Self-Defence Laws

There was never any doubt about who killed Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, or how they were killed.

No one disputes that Kyle Rittenhouse shot both of them, fatally.

The whole trial was anticipated to revolve around the principles of acting in self-defence, and that is exactly how the trial played out.

In a country like the US, each state has its own laws distinctly dealing with homicide and self-defence.

One such law is the stand-your-ground law that provides people with the right to use deadly force when they have reason to believe that they are in danger of being killed, raped, or kidnapped and in some cases even robbed.

According to Giffords Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, a gun-control advocacy organisation, 30 states in the US have clear "shoot-first" laws, with no duty to retreat in the face of danger.

The duty to retreat is a legal requirement stating that a person who knows he's under threat cannot fatally harm another in self-defence when they know they could safely avoid violence by getting out of the situation.

Additionally, eight more states allow people to use deadly force in self-defence with no duty to retreat thanks to previous judicial cases or jury instructions.

Wisconsin, the state where the Rittenhouse killings took place, is one of the 12 remaining states that does impose a duty to retreat but only when it is possible to do so with absolute safety.

But, as reported officially in the case, Rittenhouse was lunged at by Rosenbaum, who attempted to snatch the former's rifle after he was shot four times, leading to his death.

Then he ran while being followed by a mob, tripped, and fell after which he fired at another man but missed.

While he was still down, he was attacked by Anthony Huber with a skateboard, following which Rittenhouse fired a round into his chest.

That one bullet killed him, but as the narrative suggests, Rittenhouse was chased and attacked.

The nature of these events made it extremely hard for the prosecution to disprove the defendant's self-defence claims. Legal analysts had already remarked that a verdict pronouncing Rittenhouse guilty would be very surprising. After all, Wisconsin law, that puts the burden of proof on the prosecution and not the gun wielder, is the law followed in one way or another all over the US.

The Debates Surrounding 'Self-Defence'

While Rittenhouse verdict will lead to campaigns from advocacy groups asking for stronger laws that ensure that the "self-defence" principle is not misused for murder, many argue that reforms could have dangerous ramifications.

For example, cases in which defendants were genuinely compelled to use lethal force to save their own lives will have to go through a lengthy and complicated trial for their actions, risking of being pronounced guilty all along.

The other big debate is surrounding race.

In a tweet, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Princeton African American studies professor called the acquittal as a demonstration of "white power" and "a declaration of “open season” on opponents of racism.

There is no doubt that throughout US history, white men alone possessed the right to defend themselves and their property.

But even today, according to a detailed report by the Marshall Project, an online organisation that publishes reports on criminal justice cases in the US, 'Killings of Black Men by Whites are Far More Likely to be Ruled 'Justifiable' (that's the title of the report).

The report also argues that such a glaring disparity, while having existed for many years even after the passage of the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, continues to persist today regardless of the circumstances surrounding the killings.

In the context of race, "our embrace of lethal self-defense has always been selective and partial," according to historian Caroline Light, "upholding a selective right to kill for some, while posing others as legitimate targets," as quoted by The Atlantic.

In conclusion, Rittenhouse's acquittal, while being labelled as a "miscarriage of justice," may not actually be so if the law permitted him to do what he did.

And while those who followed his trial have the right to question morality of the jurors (two men died after all), what really requires scrutiny are US laws surrounding the right to self-defence.

As it stands, the law gives people the right to defend themselves using lethal means if they reasonably perceive danger to their own lives. The law also puts the burden of proof on the state.

The prosecution in the Rittenhouse case failed to prove with absolute clarity that Rittenhouse did not reasonably perceive a threat to his life.

Cases like this demand a lot from the prosecution.

In the Rittenhouse trial, the prosecution simply couldn't deliver. The laws made it too hard.

(With inputs from Reuters, NBC, The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Marshall Project, and Time Magazine.)

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Topics:  Self Defence   Gun Control 

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