Has Justice Prevailed?
Two high-profile homicide trials went to trial in November of 2021. Both were racially charged: one because it involved a white man killing an unarmed black man in the South, and one because it took place during a Black Lives Matter protest. Many considered these cases to be a referendum on the American justice system, and Americans watched both trials with bated breath to learn the outcome.
On February 23rd, 2020, Ahmaud Arbery went for a run in Brunswick, Georgia. Travis McMichael, a resident of the area, his father Gregory, and a neighbor, William “Roddie” Bryan, pursued Arbery in their vehicles, believing him to be the perpetrator of a series of alleged break-ins throughout the neighborhood. Both McMichaels were armed. Arbery was not. When the three pursuers attempted to detain Arbery, a struggle ensued, ending when Travis McMichael shot Arbery twice in the chest with a shotgun.
On August 25th, 2020, 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse joined throngs of people on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin. Most came to protest the shooting of Jacob Blake by a police officer two days prior, but Rittenhouse, armed with an AR-15, came to protect the private property owned by his close friends from looters and to provide medical assistance to anyone who might need it. Before the night ended, Rittenhouse shot three people: Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber, and Gaige Grosskreutz. Rosenbaum had chased Rittenhouse and reached for his gun, Huber had beaten Rittenhouse with a skateboard, and Grosskreutz had advanced on Rittenhouse with a gun drawn. Out of those three men, only Grosskreutz survived.
Public response to both events was powerful. Prior to being elected president, Joe Biden associated Rittenhouse with white supremacists in a video montage on Twitter. Celebrities, politicians, and the media alike condemned both the McMichaels and Rittenhouse as racist murderers. By the time both cases came to trial, they had garnered national attention.
When the defense called Kyle Rittenhouse to the stand in his own trial, his harrowing story of being threatened, then chased, then attacked in the streets of Kenosha filled in many of the gaps left out by mainstream coverage. What had once appeared to be murder, plain and simple, now looked more like a cut-and-dry case of self-defense; Rittenhouse reasonably feared for his life and so he fired his gun to protect and ultimately save himself.
The facts worked hard, but media coverage worked harder. When Rittenhouse broke down on the witness stand, he was mocked by the likes of Joy Reid for his “male white tears.” The judge presiding was accused of being racist for an innocuous joke about the Asian food they were having for lunch, and was also lampooned for his ringtone: Lee Greenwood’s patriotic anthem “God Bless the U.S.A.” NBC even had reporters stake out around the courthouse in order to follow jury members by car.
As the Rittenhouse trial drew to a conclusion, the trial of Roddie Bryan and the McMichaels began. The facts of the case were immediately evident: the three men had made fatally flawed, and arguably malicious, assumptions about Arbery. They had taken the law into their own hands and wrongly executed capital punishment, only belatedly claiming their right to a “citizens’ arrest.” Throughout the trial, the media bemoaned the jury, which had 11 white members, and ascribed racial overtones to inappropriate, but not overtly racist, statements from the defense.
The outcome of both trials should have come as no surprise to people watching: Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges, while the McMichaels and Bryan were convicted of murder.
“The path toward justice is a rocky one,” an LA Times editorial dramatically claimed. This may be true. However, two juries just returned different verdicts in the face of intense public pressure and scrutiny. As it turned out, a justice system that analyzed facts and testimonies and attempted to return an informed and unbiased verdict triumphed once again. The American justice system is truly the best in the world.