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EDITORIAL: Rittenhouse trial points to racial disparities in punishment

The result of the trial is just the latest example of discriminatory practices in the criminal justice system

Disparities in the justice system are even more apparent after Kyle Rittenhouse's trial.  – Photo by Pixabay.com

On Aug. 25, 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse crossed state lines with a semi-automatic rifle to “protect property” from protests turned violent in Kenosha, Wisconsin. By the end of the night, he will have shot and killed two people, injuring a third.

Defense counsel claimed it was an act of self-defense after being struck with a skateboard and threatened with a gun while the prosecution pursued multiple charges including first-degree murder, arguing that Rittenhouse is responsible for the pandemonium that led up to the crime. 

Rittenhouse was acquitted on Friday on all counts. This means that the jury found him not guilty of reckless homicide, two counts of recklessly endangering safety, intentional homicide and attempted intentional homicide. He faced up to 60 years of incarceration and yet walked away a free man. In a litmus test of our courts, it has become clear that the criminal justice system is failing.

The Rittenhouse trial raises a whole host of issues from lenient self-defense laws, charging juveniles as adults, racial bias in the courtroom, gun control and more. The biggest issue is disparity in conviction and sentencing across defendants of different class or race.

Almost all analyses of the trial found that the prosecution’s approach failed. Lead prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney (ADA) Thomas Binger clashed with the judge, fumbled the defendant’s cross examination and ultimately failed to present their case-in-chief in a compelling way. Some legal experts have argued that the Kenosha District Attorney Mike Graveley, a well known powerhouse attorney, should have taken the case instead of passing it off to an ADA. 

Whatever the case, mistakes made by the prosecution were accentuated by a judge that leaned slightly toward the defense. Judge Bruce Schroeder aggressively chastised Binger (albeit deservedly) on several occasions and refused to refer to the deceased as victims. Nonetheless, the outcome of the trial is the result of poor prosecution rather than Judge Schroeder. 

This acquittal on all counts for the killing of two people sends a powerful message to pro-gun groups and vigilantes across the country. White shooters are excused under the premise of self-defense, even if the danger was somewhat self-imposed.

Historically, minority defendants have faced much harsher punishments for lesser crimes. The use of discretion in sentencing leads to longer sentences for people of color. “Federal prosecutors, for example, are twice as likely to charge African Americans with offenses that carry a mandatory minimum sentence than similarly situated whites,” according to The Sentencing Project.

After fatally shooting two people, Rittenhouse walked toward police, rifle slung across his chest, with his arms up in the air. They ignored him. He would not be arrested until the next day. The protest that Rittenhouse interrupted was due to the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, for which no one would be prosecuted. 

In 1997, Fair Wayne Bryant, a Black man, was given life sentence for stealing hedge clippers. Due to the three strikes laws, Bryant had no chance at a shorter sentence. A Louisiana state appellate court upheld the sentence. 

Kalief Browder spent three years on Rikers' Island without being convicted of a crime. He spent two of those years in solitary confinement, ultimately leading to his suicide. 

Rapist Christopher Belter, aged 20, found guilty of raping three girls aged 15 to 16, was sentenced to probation. You should note that he is white. The judge claimed that he, “actually prayed over what is the appropriate sentence in this case.” We find it hard to believe that this is the sentence God recommended.  

The stark difference in sentences for white and Black defendants has been an ongoing and disturbing issue. Even in 2021, your race can still determine whether you walk free after committing a crime or spend decades behind bars.

It is frustrating to watch the criminal justice system crush some people while sparing others and being powerless to address this discrepancy. We are, unfortunately, far removed from the decision making process when it comes to sentencing, trial procedures and police behavior.

Watching the Rittenhouse trial verdict come out is without a doubt demoralizing, but the silver lining here is that it so clearly highlights disparities in punishment. We cannot ignore this issue when it plays out on the national stage.

The only thing we can do, must do, is educate ourselves and begin to vote for people who are committed to reforming the criminal justice system, something which is not unique to either party. We cannot turn a blind eye to these injustices both toward victims of white brutality and criminal justice failures.


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