Having spent my entire professional life as a county and state criminal prosecutor and now retired federal judge, I claim a certain level of expertise in commenting on the Kyle Rittenhouse criminal case.
It is difficult to understand how a 17-year-old male resident of Illinois can cross state lines into Wisconsin carrying an assault-type weapon purchased for him by an older friend and kill two men and grievously injure a third and escape any responsibly. This is, of course, what followed from an acquittal by a jury of all charges after trial earlier this month.
Yes, the weapon possession charge apparently was properly dismissed due to an unusual Wisconsin law. Yes, self defense is a legal defense if proven which, I urge, was not done here. Yes, as a democratic society, it is critical the public accept the findings of a jury as the backbone of our judicial system based on our Constitution and state law.
However, that public is entitled, as is the defendant, to a fair and impartial trial free of bias. I submit that did not occur in this proceeding. The loud scolding of the prosecutor on several occasions by an irascible judge — long overdue for retirement, often in the presence of the jury — was disturbing.
Further, while I, as a retired military officer, approve of offering gratitude for one’s military service, for the judge to call for a round of applause for a veteran who was about to testify for the defense, was grossly prejudicial. In doing so, he was potentially extending additional credibility to that witness. I assure you that jurors can be influenced by such improper behavior.
While I personally believe the jury verdict was incorrect, I am very displeased by the conduct of the trial, which, again, I do not believe was a fair one.
As a further observation, the partisan nature of the public discussion of the facts of the case goes beyond rational discussion. Not unlike too many aspects of today’s society, the partisan approach to the circumstances and handling of this incident and its perpetrator is troubling.
There are those who think this young man’s behavior was totally acceptable and that he should never have been charged with a crime and have gone so far as to deem him an appropriate candidate for an internship in Congress. Others view him as no more than an armed vigilante previously, at least on occasion, associated with the white supremacist group, the Proud Boys, which exemplifies the increasing acceptance of violence as a means of enforcing principles and settling disputes.
This trial did nothing to resolve that division but instead sends the message that others may arm themselves and play vigilante without consequences.
Ralph Smith lives in Harwich Port.
This article originally appeared on Cape Cod Times: Rittenhouse case an example of playing vigilante without consequences