Opinion | Judiciary

The aftermath of racially charged trials brings lessons and warnings

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Americans have ridden an emotional rollercoaster as juries in three high-profile, racially charged cases delivered verdicts in the span of a week. Each outcome left some cheering, others outraged, and the rest of us relieved that none provoked a violent reaction. 

In truth, there is nothing to celebrate in any of the verdicts since the alleged crimes they adjudicated could so easily have been prevented. However, the cases reveal a great deal about racism in the United States and suggest how to move beyond it.

In Kenosha, Wis., a jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges for killing two people and wounding a third during racial unrest in August 2020. The 11 white people along with one "person of color (further details undisclosed)" accepted the defense's argument that Rittenhouse acted in self-defense. Some legal experts believe the prosecutor mishandled the case while others questioned the impartiality of the judge

The real tragedy of the Kenosha trial is not that Rittenhouse got off, but that his enablers will never be held accountable. No one should be surprised that an impressionable 17-year-old hyped up on testosterone and adrenaline and armed with an assault rifle shot people. Brain research tells us consequential thinking does not fully develop in young people until their mid-twenties. That is why we need to keep guns out of the hands of teenagers. 

Once Rittenhouse illegally obtained an AR-15, he got directions on where to use it. Kevin Mathewson, a former Kenosha alderman, created the Kenosha Guard and invited armed vigilantes to protect his city. Rather than discourage this self-appointed posse, the Kenosha police handed out water and one officer told them, "We appreciate you guys." 

Days after the Rittenhouse verdict another overwhelmingly white jury (11 of 12 members) in Brunswick, Ga., convicted three men for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in February 2020. The 25-year-old Black man had been jogging through their neighborhood when the vigilantes attempted to make a citizen's arrest even though Arbery had committed no crime. One man cut the jogger off with his truck and another shot him in the ensuing scuffle. This time the jury did not buy the self-defense argument.

Anyone who thinks racism is worse in the South should note that the Georgia jury delivered a guilty verdict while the Wisconsin one voted to acquit. However, the trial very nearly did not happen. Gavin County authorities did not charge Aubrey's killers until leaked video of the attack went viral in May 2020. As with the murder of George Floyd by Derek Chauvin, the police only made arrests when overwhelming visual evidence forced them to do so. Ironically, it was one of the defendants who filmed the murder, supremely confident that his white privilege would protect him. 

Although they never mentioned it directly, the defendants' lawyers knew that race would be a factor in the Aubrey trial. They used peremptory challenges and claims of demonstrated bias to eliminate all but one African American from the jury. The judge acknowledged the appearance of "intentional discrimination" but said that since the defense had presented plausible arguments for excluding each potential juror, he could not reinstate them.

At the same time that the two murder trials were taking place, a Virginia court was hearing a civil case brought against organizers of the 2017 "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville. The gathering featured a neo-Nazi tiki torch parade in which marchers chanted "Jews will not replace us," clashes between white supremacists and counter demonstrators and the murder of Heather Heyer by James Alex Fields, who ran her over with his car. The jury found the organizers liable for $26 million in damages. 

The Southern Poverty Law Center has applauded the verdict as a "landmark decision" because it establishes the precedent that those who organize white supremacist gatherings may be held accountable for the violence the rallies cause. That remains to be seen. The ruling may make perpetrators more vulnerable or make them more cautious. Perhaps racists who plan such gatherings will choose their words more carefully, avoiding overtly racist language and open incitement.

Beyond the lessons each provides, the trials collectively reveal disturbing trends and indicate the need for legal reforms. Vigilante activity has increased in recent years. Armed militia members showed up at the open Michigan rally in August 2020 and march freely down the streets of American cities. The men who murdered Arbery clearly believed they would face no consequences for their actions. The Rittenhouse verdict will embolden those who believe they can take the law into their own hands.

Vigilantism underscores the need for legal reform. Self-defense, stand-your-ground and citizen's arrest laws allow armed people a dangerous latitude in using deadly force even when they initiate a confrontation. The Trayvon Martin killing is a case in point. Combined with permissive open-carry laws, which allow almost anyone to tote a gun in public, even without a permit, these statutes increase the likelihood of violence. Ordinary disagreements can turn deadly in an instant. 

The logical alternative to vigilantism is to let the police do their job. Unfortunately, they do not always enforce the law equitably. 

It took 74 days for Gregory McMichael, a former detective in the department, and his son Travis to be charged, even though Gavin County Police had the video of the attack shortly after it happened. Even then it took the resignation of the original prosecutor and involvement by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation before arrests were made. 

Kenosha police not only allowed Rittenhouse to walk the streets with an AR15; some of them welcomed him. While most law enforcement officers across the country strive to be fair and impartial, too many continue to exhibit racist behavior with impunity.

We can take comfort that the legal system worked, however imperfectly, last week, but we have a long way to go before "liberty and justice for all" applies equally to everyone.

Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and author of "Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat."

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