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The Power of Regular People

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eye on the news

The Power of Regular People

Like facts, juries are stubborn things. December 2, 2021
Politics and law
Public safety

John Adams famously said that facts are stubborn things. With recent verdicts in Wisconsin and Georgia, the media are finding out that juries are stubborn things, too. Thankfully, jurors still tend to follow the law and the facts, regardless of social pressures.

Consider the Kyle Rittenhouse case. In August 2020, a white police officer shot a black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Justice Department eventually declined to pursue any charges against the officer, as the shooting was deemed justified. Violent protests and looting ensued after the shooting, while some citizens said that they would defend the local stores. One of those people was 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who came from a nearby town in Illinois with a rifle. Predictably, the protesters and defenders clashed; in the chaos, Rittenhouse ended up shooting three of the protesters, killing two. Charged with murder and related offenses, Rittenhouse claimed self-defense, and video evidence seemed to confirm his version of events. Yet the media painted the protesters as peaceful, Rittenhouse as the out-of-control bad guy, and the shooting as racially motivated. Press coverage was curiously silent about basic facts: the three men Rittenhouse shot were white, two of them had serious criminal records, and one had been pointing a gun at him.

A jury acquitted Rittenhouse of all charges. The reaction was swift and fierce on all sides. Some called Rittenhouse a murderer and vigilante. Others called him a hero. But few focused on the jurors who acquitted him.

Juries exist in America as a bulwark against the potential tyranny of a single judge or the uninformed judgment of the mob. Drawn from the ordinary citizenry, they often reflect the commonsense views of the broad American middle. The jurors in the Rittenhouse trial live in the Kenosha neighborhoods that were subject to the protests from out-of-town agitators. They shop at the stores that were looted. They know what they saw in the streets of their hometown.

Still, the jurors struggled with their decision. They deliberated for four days, reviewing the video recordings and the law of self-defense. They understood that people had been killed. Small-town Midwesterners tend not to rush things. Yet even as they deliberated, some on the left broadcast warnings that an acquittal would result in more blood on the streets of Kenosha and across the U.S. A producer for MSNBC even followed the jury’s transport vehicle. In the end, the jurors chose to believe what they saw with their own eyes, both on video and on the streets. Rittenhouse may not have been wise to come to Kenosha, but he acted in self-defense.

America has seen these stubborn juries before. In 1987, a Manhattan jury acquitted Bernie Goetz of attempted murder for shooting four black males who tried to rob him on a subway, with Goetz claiming self-defense. In 2013, a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman of murder after he claimed self-defense in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, where Martin appeared to be beating Zimmerman.

Stubborn juries don’t move in one direction. A week after the Rittenhouse verdict, a Brunswick, Georgia, jury convicted Travis McMichael, Greg McMichael, and William Bryan in the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The defendants in the Georgia case also claimed self-defense. But that jury saw three men hunting down an unarmed man who was alone, before one of the armed defendants got into a physical altercation and shot Arbery. Interestingly, while the media sought to make it look like Arbery was just out for a jog, the prosecution did not fall into the trap of presenting a false narrative. It conceded that Arbery might not have belonged at the property he entered, but argued that was no justification for killing him.

The Georgia jury had to sort through video evidence, conflicting versions of events, one of the defendants taking the stand, and legal issues related to self-defense and the citizen’s-arrest law. It also had to apply the felony-murder rule to the two defendants who did not fire the gun. The prosecution team presented a careful and honest case. The jury reviewed the law and the facts, then convicted the defendants—though they made some careful distinctions between the level of culpability of the three defendants based on their respective roles in the killing.

In both cases, jurors followed the facts, the law, and common sense. The man who was attacked in Kenosha was allowed to claim self-defense. The man who was attacked in Georgia was the victim of a murder.

Based on my experience of decades in the trenches of criminal justice, it is both difficult and unwise to try to fool a jury. Twelve honest citizens can see through most lies, whether presented by the prosecution or defense. These juries offer a message: justice depends not on race or what you see on Twitter, but on the facts and the law.

Photo: YinYang/iStock

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