The Beauty of the Jury System as it Came in the Rittenhouse Trial

The Kyle Rittenhouse trial was one of, if not, the most highly publicized and politicized cases since the trial of O.J. Simpson, with the jury’s Nov. 19 verdict causing a storm of both approbation and disapprobation around the world. 

Such high profile cases are bound to elicit aggressive responses from all sides.

Yet what changed this time was the difference in response from certain sections of the public; namely, the that some viewed the American justice system as defunct and obsolete, based on the fact that Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges, and, therefore, needed to be reconstructed. 

I disagree entirely. The one notable fact about the Rittenhouse trial was the success of the system that acquitted Rittenhouse on all charges.

For anyone who followed the trial closely, they would have seen that the pressure on the jury was almost overwhelming. The pressure came from various institutions, corporations and political figures alike. One example of this was the trial judge having to urge the jury not to consider the opinions of President Biden. Everyone felt it was their duty to weigh in apparently. Ben & Jerry’s, which is an ice-cream company, for example, tweeted, “[t]he #RittenhouseTrial displays yet again that our “justice” system is racist.”  MSNBC had commentators calling him a ‘little murderous white supremacist’ even after the verdict and thousands of people had 'liked' and retweeted Biden’s video linking Rittenhouse with Charlottesville white supremacists.  

Yet there was more, and that was the threat of violence and looting. As reported by the Guardian, the city of Kenosha was on standby awaiting the verdict of the jury as it was hoping to avoid the violence experienced last year. An even greater scandal was the news network MSNBC was banned from the courtroom because one of their reporters skipped a red light to follow a bus escorting the jury home – something unquestionably prejudicial to the proceedings.

Despite all this, the jury nevertheless found Kyle Rittenhouse 'not guilty.' A small collection of the public minded people evaluated the evidence before them and stood defiantly against the state and much of the media to ensure someone innocent of the crimes he was accused of did not spend the rest of his life in prison. This is precisely the reason why juries are worth protecting.

I’m sure many who wish to see his trial decision reversed or heard again before a political body would agree with Mr. Bumble from Oliver Twist when he says ‘juries is ineddictaed, vulgar, grovelling wretches.’ That is no doubt sometimes the case. But they have done more to protect the freedoms of the individual more than any philosopher, jurist, politician or political commentator ever have.

The function of the jury system, something the barrister Sadakat Kadri calls a ‘civic sacrament,’ has been widely forgotten and wholly misunderstood as it involves archaic language and sometimes even appeals to sentiment. It dates back as far back as King Alfred the Great’s legal code, promulgated in the 9th century and has evolved regularly since then. 

One cannot pretend to suggest that juries always have been or always will be perfect because they are not: far from it. David Hume, for example, made the point that in the days of the supremacy of the Star Chamber, ‘juries were no manner of security to the liberty of the subject…[where] the court was resolved to have him condemned.’ 

There can, however, be no doubt that they have been and are a veritable good for us. They ensure, as was demonstrated by the Rittenhouse trial, the state cannot imprison an individual arbitrarily; on the contrary, the state has to present a factual, logical and well-reasoned argument to twelve random members of the public, persuading them that it is justifiable to remove the individual’s freedom. However, the state is fighting against the defence, which seeks to protect the fundamental liberties of the individual and has to prove that the individual is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt – a roughly 95% certainty that the defendant is guilty. There can be no wonder then why Lord Devlin, one of the most pre-eminent British justices of the 20th century called the jury, ‘the lamp that shows that freedom lives.

It means that individuals have a fighting chance in a courtroom. It’s not like the European tradition, whereby two lawyers are chatting a bit with the judge, usually behind closed doors or in an empty courtroom, about how long the sentence should be, while the defendant is forced to wallow in his alleged criminality. The judge is omnipotent and dictates the direction of the trial. The counsel is duller and useless and simply there to ask witnesses questions but in no way similar to the art of cross-examination. Of course, there are some advantages to this such as ensuring justice is as smooth and efficient as a conveyor belt. 

But efficient justice fails to recognize the humanity and raw emotion one feels when starring at 30 years in prison. The English and American tradition, on the other hand, is, indeed, an inefficient, costly, exhaustive, and time-consuming slog, exhausting the defendant, his and victims’ family and all those involved. That, however, is the price of a fairer system: a system that prioritizes the defendant’s freedom above everything else. 

There is a more fundamental reason why juries exist, and that is for the reason that justice is near impossible to define. Rigorous debate about the meaning of justice goes as far back as ancient Greece and has troubled the minds of some of the most intelligent people who have lived since then. But, realistically, very few people have even come close to a satisfactory definition of justice. Yet even then, the definitions are far from unchallenge-able. Instead, it is much easier to see what justice is not than what it is. Determining an injustice is something most people are capable of, hence, why our societies rely on the public’s sagacity rather than jurisprudential knowledge.

Consider this example. What is a just punishment for jaywalking without any other circumstances being relevant? A man simply walks across the road when the light is red and is caught by the police. That’s it. The answer to the question of a just punishment is, indeed, difficult to know. What, on the other hand, is easier to argue is that a $1 million fine is unjust, and the state wanting to send a jaywalker to prison would be extremely unjust. 

But what if the state wishes to send him to prison for that? Fortunately, we are from a tradition that guarantees that the state cannot simply do this arbitrarily. In the Anglosphere, habeas corpus is a reality for most others, including first world countries, it is an ambition or nuisance.

What happened in the Rittenhouse trial was a triumph of the ordinary man over the arbitrary power of the state. There is a valuable lesson in that. The state thought by simply bringing a prosecution, with less than satisfactory evidence, against Rittenhouse coupled with strong political pressure would be sufficient for a conviction. Thankfully for all of us, it was not. That is why they are debating the jury system because with it existing the power of the state is forced back.

I’m sure many today would prefer a legal system without juries, and constant discussion about their efficiency and effectiveness make this a distinct likelihood for the future. However, I know for a fact that were I forced to sit in the dock, accused of a crime I have not committed, I know what system I would choose.

Image: Screen shot from NBC News video, via YouTube

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