After days of deliberation, a Wisconsin jury on Friday acquitted 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges tied to the deaths of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, whom Rittenhouse shot and killed last year during a night of protests in Kenosha.
Some have celebrated the verdict as a triumph for Second Amendment rights, while others say the decision points to racial inequities within the criminal justice system.
“That, if Kyle Rittenhouse were Black (he) probably wouldn’t have seen court – he probably would have been shot and killed on the spot – is cause for alarm,” Crystal Lake resident and local activist Tony Bradburn said.
This acquittal also calls into question the freedom of speech and the protection to peacefully protest, Bradburn said.
“What values are we really upholding?” Bradburn asked.
U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, D-Downers Grove, also condemned the verdict, referring to Rittenhouse as a “hate-fueled white vigilante.”
“As we reflect on the outcome of today’s verdict, we must remember those who had their lives ended far too short; Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum,” Casten said in a statement. “My heart goes out to their families, friends and community mourning today’s devastating verdict. We will not forget your names.”
Rittenhouse’s case also highlighted the national debate over guns, vigilantism and racial injustice.
In the aftermath of Friday’s verdict, reactions have been mixed.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the longtime civil rights leader, said the verdict throws into doubt the safety of people who protest in support of Black Americans.
“It seems to me that it’s open season on human rights demonstrators,” he said.
But Illinois State Rifle Association Executive Director Richard Pearson said in a statement that the jury’s decision affirmed Americans’ rights to protect themselves.
“The decision today is a significant victory for the right of self-defense and for the 2nd Amendment,” Pearson said.
Huber’s parents, however, said the not guilty findings lack accountability.
“It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street,” Huber’s parents said in a statement. “We hope that decent people will join us in rejecting that message and demanding more of our laws, our officials and our justice system.”
Northern Illinois University associate professor Joseph Flynn said he thinks Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal is another example of how the nation’s criminal justice system, while complex, “does tend to lean toward the benefit of white folks.”
“Whether it’s designed that way or not I don’t think is necessarily the point,” said Flynn, who also is associate director of NIU’s Center for Black Studies. “It’s a combination of how the system is structured, how it’s operated and the people who are involved in it.”
When adding the layer of race to the situation, Flynn said, he’s “very hard-pressed to think of a situation in which an 18-year-old Black kid could stand in front of a jury and say, ‘Well I was there to just help out.’”
Simon Weffer-Elizondo, an NIU sociology professor, said he was concerned the verdict might spur an increased use of weapons at protests.
Weffer-Elizondo used the example of the November 1980 Greensborough, North Carolina massacre, where the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party shot and killed five participants of a ‘Death to the Klan’ march which had been organized by the Communists Workers Party.
They got off “scot-free,” Weffer-Elizondo said, leading to the Klan showing up with weapons anytime there were protests about race throughout the South.
“Should we expect that to happen?” Weffer-Elizondo asked. “I don’t know, but it certainly increases the possibility that people are going to look at that verdict and say, I think I better have a weapon so I’m in a position to protect myself.”
NIU law professor Dan McConkie, who’s worked as a prosecutor before, said the way the law looks at a situation like this is from Rittenhouse’s position.
“The charges have to do with violence to others, and it’s always a successful defense if the jury feels that the defendant acted in self-defense,” McConkie said. “This was obviously a pretty close case even if you think Rittenhouse shouldn’t have been there with his AR-15, and I think he shouldn’t have.”
Northwest Herald Reporter Cassie Buchman, The Associated Press and the Daily Chronicle contributed to this article.