The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The jury gave Rittenhouse the benefit of the doubt. That’s what advocates of criminal justice reform should have wanted.

Kyle Rittenhouse looks back before going on a break during his trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis., on Nov. 15. (Sean Krajacic/AP)
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All 17-year-olds act like fools sometimes, and many of them have grandiose fantasies about themselves. But in Kyle Rittenhouse’s case, those fantasies seem to have involved carrying a gun. And quite unusually, Rittenhouse took his fantasy life, and his gun, into the middle of a riot, where he killed two men and maimed another.

Yet whether or not you think he presented a legitimate claim of self-defense in his now-concluded murder trial, Rittenhouse is not the caricature the left has made of him. When on Friday afternoon the jury returned a verdict of not guilty on all counts, it wasn’t yet another triumph of white supremacy, aided by a biased judge. It was the American justice system working as it should: giving the benefit of the doubt to a defendant who was dangerously unwise but didn’t clearly commit murder.

While Rittenhouse dove into the drama of running around with a gun, putting out fires and providing first aid during unrest following a police shooting in Kenosha, Wis., in August 2020, he didn’t act like a hunter, or even a belligerent kid trying to provoke a confrontation. When chased, he retreated, turning around only after something was thrown at him, and then again when one of his pursuers fired off his own gun.

Rittenhouse himself pulled the trigger only when Joseph Rosenbaum was almost upon him — after Rosenbaum, according to witness testimony, “said, 'F--- you’ and reached for [Rittenhouse’s] weapon.” After Rittenhouse killed Rosenbaum, the two shootings that followed were a complex tragedy in which three men tried to disarm what they believed to be an active shooter, while Kyle Rittenhouse sought to protect himself from a mob attacking him with feet, skateboard and handgun.

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That’s not to say that Rittenhouse is guiltless — at best he made a fatally stupid decision to bring a gun into a volatile situation, and at worst he panicked in a situation he himself created. But too many on the left rushed to the harshest possible judgment from the moment they heard Rittenhouse’s name, and refused to make the return journey even as new evidence emerged.

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Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) spoke for many in August 2020 when she tweeted that “A 17 year old white supremacist domestic terrorist drove across state lines, armed with an AR 15.” That tweet is still up, and still widely echoed, even though it is substantially false — the gun didn’t cross state lines, and as the New York Times noted, “There are no overt links on Mr. Rittenhouse’s social media accounts to militias or white supremacist groups who have dispatched armed men to protest events across the country.” Rittenhouse is simply not Timothy McVeigh or Dylann Roof, and it is disturbing to see so many on the left pivot from “defund the police” and “end mass incarceration” to “Lock up Kyle Rittenhouse and throw away the key,” as Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) tweeted last week.

No doubt Jeffries, Pressley and their many fellow travelers still believe the criminal justice system is too harsh. They’re just willing to make exceptions for certain people. You know, the kind with “an intense affinity for guns, law enforcement and President Trump.” Belatedly, the left has discovered its counterweight to the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush: pitiless progressivism.

This is unfortunate. A sitting U.S. representative judged Rittenhouse guilty before hearing all the testimony, then advocated exactly the kind of excessively long sentences for violent offenders that have become the driving force behind mass incarceration. As a moral matter, Jeffries had a better argument in June 2020, when he was urging America to “End. Mass. Incarceration.” While prison is sometimes necessary, the American justice system imprisons people too long and too enthusiastically.

The Post's View: Kyle Rittenhouse is acquitted, but his actions should not be excused or celebrated

But what really dismays is the political malpractice. For people serious about criminal justice reform, events of the past year have offered a golden opportunity. With a law-and-order conservative such as Rittenhouse in the dock, and “lock her up” Trump supporters suffering the indignities of the D.C. jail, the left could have turned to the right and said: “You see? Prison conditions in this country are inhumane. Prosecutors have too much power, overreach and wreck lives. Let’s come together to fix this.”

Instead, even as the right waxed indignant about an abusive system, the left wanted vengeance. It wasn’t just the “lock him up” language that elevated one now-18-year-old defendant into a threat to the republic; they also attacked decades of hard-won defendant rights. As the prosecutor’s case sagged, Judge Bruce E. Schroeder was excoriated for making any ruling that constrained the prosecution, even though his rulings were pretty standard.

Indisputably, the system is still working better for Rittenhouse than it does for the nameless poor kids who face it without $2 million bail funds and pricey attorneys. But that’s exactly why it was so vital for the left to seize a moment when conservatives were worried about miscarriages of justice.

Handed a chance to make the system better, the left threw it away and reached for easy outrage and tribal affinities. Instead of changing minds, they merely changed sides.