Why the Kyle Rittenhouse sentence was legal

The Kyle Rittenhouse trial is probably the most controversial trial of the past few years. Rittenhouse was accused of a misdemeanor weapons offense, murdering two men, and unjustly shooting a third. The weapons charge was thrown out, and he was declared not guilty on all other charges. Events like the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent prosecution of Derek Chauvin certainly caused more uproar. Still, I believe I would be hard-pressed to find anyone in the Westminster community who disagreed with the verdict. Meanwhile, many have decried the Rittenhouse verdict saying that it sets a bad precedent and is emblematic of systemic racism in the justice system. Celebrities and politicians have all had their say, but only the opinion of the jury mattered in the end.

Let me begin by saying that Kyle Rittenhouse’s actions were, in my opinion, stupid. Going out into the streets was a bad idea. Going out into the streets with a visible firearm was a worse idea. But stupidity is not a crime. If it were, there would be a lot more people in prison. 

Before addressing the charges, it is worth pointing out that, like with any other trial of this magnitude, there is substantial misinformation being shared all over social media. For example, Representative Karen Bass said, “Here, you have a 17-year-old boy who was driven by his mother across state lines with an automatic weapon — frankly, she should have been detained for child endangerment — to go to a protest where he says he’s going to help the police. I mean, it was ridiculous”. The first factual error here is that his mother did not drive him to Kenosha; he drove himself. The second is the semi-automatic (not automatic) weapon did not cross state lines. In fact, a friend of Rittenhouse’s gave him the gun after he had already arrived in Kenosha. Finally, the invocation of state lines is dishonest at best. Rittenhouse did live about twenty minutes away on the other side of the state border, but he worked in Kenosha, and his father lived there. Crossing the state lines was not a big deal.

The jury did not make a decision on the weapons charge because it was thrown out by the judge in a somewhat controversial move. The charge in question was a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months in prison. Wisconsin’s gun laws state that possession of a dangerous weapon by a minor is a misdemeanor, but a subsection of that law goes on to detail that it only applies to short-barreled rifles. The rifle Rittenhouse used was well above the minimum length: so the charge was thrown out. But that was the least of the charges he faced.

Before addressing the shooting charges, it is important to understand the self-defense laws in the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin allows for the use of deadly force if you can reasonably believe that you are in imminent danger of death or severe bodily harm. “Reasonably believe” is the important legal standard here. In order for Rittenhouse to be guilty, the prosecution must prove that the 17-year-old did not have any reason to believe he was in imminent danger of severe harm.

To that end, the second and third shootings are perhaps the most clear-cut. There is video evidence that shows that while running away from pursuers, Rittenhouse tripped and fell. While he was on the ground, the first man, Anthony Huber, attempted to hit him with a skateboard. Rittenhouse shot him in the chest, killing him. In the longer version of the video, a second man can be seen feigning surrender and then leveling his handgun at Rittenhouse, who shoots him in the arm. Not only does the video evidence support this, but the second man, Gaige Grosskreutz, testified during the trial that Rittenhouse did not shoot him until he pointed his handgun at him. If dodging a blow to the head with a skateboard and having a handgun pointed at you does not qualify as imminent danger, then I do not know what does.

The first shooting is less clear-cut, but Rittenhouse could still make a reasonable claim to self-defense. Rittenhouse was being chased by a man when a gun went off behind him (fired by an unidentified third party). Rittenhouse continued to run until the man chasing him lunged toward him, at which point Kyle shot the man. Imagine you are being chased by a random stranger with gunfire going off around you. What do you think to yourself? Personally, I’m thinking, “I’m about to die.” That seems like a reasonable fear of imminent harm to me. 

Once again, none of this is a defense of his decision to be there in the first place, but legally the existence of a protest does not remove a citizen’s right to be out on the streets. It does make it a stupid decision, but not one that should remove that citizen’s right to self-defense. Imagine if a rich man in his Ferrari decided to drive through an area that has a really high carjacking rate. Is that a stupid decision? Yes. Should that man lose the right to defend himself when attacked? No, of course not. So why should this situation be any different?