The specter of summer 2020 still haunts us. We are immersed in two trials, separated by hundreds of miles, both telling the tale of complicated justice systems. Kyle Rittenhouse is on trial for the killing of two people during civil unrest after the police shooting of an unarmed Black man. Simultaneously, the trials of Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William Bryan Jr. are taking place in Glynn County, Georgia, for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The parallel paths these trials are taking continue to illustrate the complexity that is race, justice and violence.
This hydra, comprised of race, justice and violence, has turned quite vicious in recent years. The last two years we have not only seen an exponential growth in this virulent triumvirate, but it has also been weaponized in ways similar to our darkest periods of American history. The Glynn County trial and Rittenhouse trial tell striking stories of how these three issues are intertwined and leveraged for political or other means.
Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old resident of Antioch, Illinois, traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, during protests after the killing of a Black man at the hands of police, armed with an assault-style rifle with the reported/testified to intentions of bringing peace and protecting private businesses during the civil response to the police-action shooting that left Jacob Blake paralyzed. Now facing multiple charges including reckless homicide, intentional homicide and attempted intentional homicide, these charges evolved as the trial went on, with jury instructions regarding lesser-included charges. With Rittenhouse testifying, defending his actions, the jury was deliberating the multiple charges facing the young man at IL deadline.
The complicated path to jury deliberation included Batson challenges by the state, rebukes by the presiding judge and two divergent stories of what led to the self-defense claims lodged by a gun-wielding youth that took the lives of two protestors, injuring another. The media coverage along with the glorification and demonizing of the defendant by some communities illustrates the deep divisions within our country.
Nearly 700 miles southeast of Kenosha in Brunswick, Georgia, Ahmaud Arbery’s body laid cold waiting for several weeks as local law enforcement and members of the legal system played political hot potato with the case. After several recusals citing conflicts of interest and preliminary opinion letters to law enforcement, a prosecuting attorney was appointed to the matter nearly two months after Arbery’s killing. The world then turned upside down when on May 5 a video of the attack on Mr. Arbery was made public. The rather brief yet shocking clip shows the now-defendants in a pickup truck, heavily armed, approach a jogging Arbery, several shots are fired, and a direct physical altercation appears to take place with additional shots fired. The video ends with Mr. Arbery falling to the ground wearing a blood-soaked T-shirt.
Protests erupted across the country. The McMichaels were arrested, charged with murder. Shortly thereafter, Georgia’s attorney general requested a full investigation by the U.S. Justice Department. Concurrently, after additional allegations of misconduct and claims of sparse resources, a fourth prosecutor was appointed. With charges filed at the state and federal level, one trial is currently underway while a federal hate crime trial is set to begin in February 2022.
Like the Rittenhouse trial, the Glynn County trial voir dire was fraught with allegations of unseating potential jurors on racial grounds. The impaneled jury is now comprised of 11 white jurors and one Black juror. The presiding judge dismissed the Batson challenge on longstanding jurisprudence that so long as race-neutral reasons to unseat Black candidates from the jury were offered, the peremptory strikes were fair game. The hearings that accompanied these challenges in the Arbery case signify a clear shortcoming in the jury selection process, particularly when high-profile cases have obvious racial overtones. It is incumbent upon the presiding judge to ensure a fair trial takes place. Embedded within that responsibility is the care that must be taken to craft a jury that is fair, impartial and reflective of the community. An excellent example of a high-profile case that dealt with issues of policing and race was the Derek Chauvin trial. The presiding judge’s meticulous selection process led to a diverse panel that reflected that community.
The connections between the Rittenhouse, McMichael and Bryan trials are numerous, while the lessons we can take from there may not be as obvious until both outcomes are fully adjudicated. We have a responsibility to delicately approach issues of justice and race, yet approach them nevertheless. We cannot run from nor avoid our complicated history. Acknowledging the past allows us to grow, evolve and do better. Our judicial officers must continue to lead in a way that maintains impartiality and creates trust within communities where trust is at a deficit. An argument can be made that the Batson challenge is flawed. State courts and legislative bodies have sought to cure those shortcomings; that work must continue.
But for the mass broadcast and dissemination of several videos in Kenosha and the eventual footage of the brutal attack on the two-lane road in Brunswick, the current discussions on these issues in America would be quite limited. The present trials have again brought the issues of race, justice and violence to the forefront. Is there an America where the hydra of race, justice and violence is ever slain? If not, how do we tame that beast and create a legal system that serves justice? The work continues to create a more just Indiana.•
• At the time of submission, the Rittenhouse jury was in deliberations while the trial against the McMichaels and Bryan was ongoing.
• Ahmed Young is general counsel and chief of external affairs for Indianapolis Public Schools. Opinions expressed are those of the author.