After I shut up the shebeen for the night on Monday, there came a single line in the closing argument for the defense in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial that stopped me cold in the midst of closing the shutters and turning off the vintage "Leinenkugel’s" neon signs on the wall. In support of the notion that Rittenhouse’s killings were "privileged" under Wisconsin law as self-defense, defense attorney Mark Richards made a point to the jury that seemed curious at the time and looks even worse upon reflection. Key to his presentation was that Rittenhouse only fired his AR-15 four times and, as a corollary, that Rittenhouse wasn’t an "active shooter" as the prosecutor claimed, because he only killed two people and he didn't simply open up on the crowds around him. Then, Richards went on:
"Ladies and gentlemen, other people in this community have shot somebody seven times — and it's been found to be OK. My client did it four times.”
This was a Holy God moment to end all Holy God moments. Clearly, Richards was referring to the shooting of Jacob Blake, who was shot seven times in the back by Kenosha police officer Rusten Sheskey. That was the incident that prompted the disturbances in that city into which Rittenhouse decided to inject himself last August. The same DA’s office that is trying to convict Rittenhouse decided not to prosecute Sheskey. The federal prosecutors took a pass as well. So, Richards seemed to be arguing, if Sheskey walked, his client should as well. After all, Rittenhouse only fired four times.
That is horrifying enough on its face. And even if you think the DA somehow deserves to have its decision on Sheskey thrown back at it, the idea that the actions of a police officer are equatable in any way with the actions of a 17-year-old civilian is an open invitation to vigilantism and citizen posses running wild in the streets. I have no brief for Sheskey; as the late Murray Kempton once wrote of a murder defendant, "She lost me after the third bullet." Sheskey lost me after the second shot. But he was a credentialed law-enforcement professional. Kyle Rittenhouse was a self-deputized gunman shopping for trouble. The difference is stark, and Richards massively overreached in drawing the parallel. I’m surprised his co-counsel didn’t leap up and tackle him.
I’m less sure than I was before Monday night that Rittenhouse will get off with merely his wrists being slapped. Richards’ closing was so utterly devoid of empathy for the slain and the wounded that jurors may have found it (and him) off-putting. Richards made a case for Rittenhouse’s complete innocence from the time he left his home in Illinois, picked up his weapon in Wisconsin, and took to the streets of Kenosha. Richards even said flatly that he was "glad" that Rittenhouse had shot one of his victims. And using Jacob Blake, who is presently paralyzed because a policeman shot him seven times, as a cudgel in Rittenhouse’s defense may revolt wavering jurors. There may still be room for humanity in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.
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