Georgia Justice

This week’s unanimous guilty verdict in the Ahmaud Arbery case raises an interesting legal question for Spirited Reasoners: Why did a unanimous jury in Wisconsin reach the opposite decision—i. e., not guilty—in the Kyle Rittenhouse case? Let’s look at the facts of the two cases in the manner in which law students would be encouraged to study them.

Although much has been made about the differences between the two weapons used—a so-called “short-barreled” assault rifle in the Rittenhouse case versus a long-barreled shotgun in the Arbery case—this seems like the proverbial distinction without a difference. Would we really be comfortable reversing the two verdicts by switching the two weapons? I doubt it. By throwing out the weapons charge in the Rittenhouse case, the seemingly pro-defense trial judge prevented the jury from reaching a guilty verdict on the one charge upon which everyone might have agreed; namely, that Kyle Rittenhouse had no business brandishing an assault weapon in a place filled with demonstrators. (I feel the same way about those on the extreme left at that same demonstration who were also carrying weapons.)

Nope. It wasn’t the barrel of the weapon that made the difference. What seems to have set the Arbery case apart from the Rittenhouse case was the manner in which the three defendants stalked the victim, trapping him “like a rat in a cage” (to paraphrase the prosecutor.) Contrast that with the facts in the Rittenhouse case, in which it was the victims who (arguably) made the first physical attack move by running toward the defendant. Couple this with the fact that Rittenhouse was younger than any of the three defendants in the Arbery case, and the jury perhaps had reason to consider his lapses in judgment a bit more forgivable.

What can we learn by viewing the two cases side-by-side? Several things come to mind.

First, the State of Wisconsin needs to update its laws relating to the brandishing of firearms at events in which large numbers of unarmed citizens are present, regardless of whether some of those citizens might also be armed. Once we allow one person to take an assault weapon to an outdoor assembly, then we must allow everyone else to do the same. At the very least, his behavior would seem to warrant something along the lines of “reckless endangerment.” Surely, given all the mass shootings this nation has endured over the past 20 years, there should be consequences for a person who chooses to bring an assault weapon to a crowded event. Otherwise, what are peaceful, unarmed citizens supposed to do when someone comes marching up to the crowd, brandishing an assault rifle?

Second, it’s interesting to note how far the court system in the State of Georgia has come since the 1960s, notwithstanding the fact that it took a good deal of public pressure and an unambiguous video before prosecutors in that state decided to unbury the case. The fact remains that once the case found its way into a public courtroom, an all-white jury convicted three white men for the killing of a black man.

Finally, one must conclude, given the disparate outcomes in the two cases, that individuals will be taking their chances in the courts whenever they decide to play the role of vigilante. Spirited Reasoners can only hope that the possibility, although not the certainty, of a guilty verdict just might cause some misguided crusaders to think twice.