Kyle Rittenhouse Verdict
As a divided nation continues to absorb the not-guilty verdict in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, much more about the outcome has come into focus. The Kenosha County jurors did not rush to any type of pre-determined judgment, but carefully weighed the law and facts to reach their ultimate decision. It is also undeniable the law in Wisconsin on self-defense helped Mr. Rittenhouse, as did much of the video evidence and trial testimony, which included an emotional Kyle Rittenhouse on the stand.
When jurors speak to the public, they typically avoid discussing the jury dynamic during deliberations and focus on the significant facts about the case – in other words, what led them to the final result. We will never know with certainty what went on inside the deliberation room unless we get a first-hand account from one of the jurors. However, we do have clues to how the process unfolded. Given that the jury deliberated for roughly 26 hours without approaching the judge to say they were stuck, I believe there was genuine disagreement where pro-defense advocacy ultimately prevailed.
At the outset of deliberations, juries tend to ascertain pretty quickly where things stand. Sometimes a juror, often the foreperson, suggests that a quick poll should be taken. It wouldn’t surprise me if the group at some point was split 6-6 or 7-5 on some of the counts. And this is what a deliberation is supposed to be about – sharing divergent perspectives, resolving ambiguous “gaps” in the case, questioning others’ assumptions and eventually building consensus. Again, a mostly like-minded jury would not have taken 26 hours to return a verdict. Even if many among us now disagree with the verdict, it appears the process worked.
Did political leaning among the panelists seal the favorable fate of Kyle Rittenhouse? Probably not. Kenosha County was evenly split in the 2016 election between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (47% to 47%). Donald Trump won the county in 2020 by a slim 51%-48% margin. The theory that right-leaning Trump supporters on the jury fought for an acquittal while the pro-Biden jurors had a penchant to convict overlooks the strong likelihood that the Rittenhouse’s jury of twelve consisted of a veritable mix of voters. The aggregate Kenosha County numbers suggest that at least five or six jurors empaneled never cast a vote for Donald Trump. Something more significant is at play here. When assessing jury decision-making, knowing one’s political orientation is useful, but it is far more important to understand and appreciate the local norms, mores, styles, approaches, priorities, experiences and attitudes of the community where jurors come from – in this case, Kenosha County. These jurors lived through the shooting of Jacob Blake, and the subsequent protests and volatile aftermath during August of 2020, They therefore bring with them their own set of idiosyncratic, firmly held, pre-existing beliefs about, among other things, guns, self-defense, the police, our judicial system, free speech and protests. These jurors shared a distinct set of life experiences that informed the way they interpreted the evidence in the case.
We can only speculate how Kyle Rittenhouse would have fared in a different jurisdiction with different jurors, or in a courtroom governed by a different set of state laws on self-defense. Jurors in states with different self-defense laws might well have convicted Rittenhouse of the charges against him even when viewing the same exact evidence. And we can do a similar thought experiment within the state of Wisconsin. Just 35 miles and two counties north lies Milwaukee County, where a dissimilar set of jurors may well have reached a different result even with the pro-defendant nature of the state’s self-defense law. Is a jury in San Francisco County substantially different from a jury in Douglas County Nebraska? Of course.
This lack of uniformity across the country amplifies the uniqueness of our jury system where we ask people in their local community to decide the fate of a defendant. Juries are a reflection of a community’s values. In our system of justice, much of this boils down to where jurors come from. Many people are frustrated with the not guilty verdict. This sentiment is often based on a feeling that, in their own community, a different result would have occurred. This can feel difficult to accept. But what makes a jury of our peers so frustrating at times is exactly what makes it so fascinating.