Last Friday a jury found Kyle Rittenhouse “not guilty” on all counts. Today another jury found the three defendants in the Ahmaud Arbery case “guilty” on almost all counts.
These outcomes seem to me correct.
Following the Rittenhouse verdict there were a lot of extreme statements, from those on the left, about white people being given a “license to kill” by the Rittenhouse verdict. Without a doubt the verdicts in the Arbery case will now result in some idiotic and extreme statements from those on the right, whether about reverse racism or abridging right of self-defense, or who knows what else.
Legal cases do have implications for the future. That’s the whole idea of legal precedent. But the rush to generalize and to say a court verdict “signals” this or that is often overreach and hyperbole, red meat for one side or the other.
In addition to the two verdicts seeming sound to this legal layperson, I was also cheered by those, including President Biden, who said we do, as we should, respect the jury system. It’s not perfect. Nothing is in this life, this world. There have been plenty of packed juries over the decades. But the fundamental idea of judgment by a jury of one’s peers is sound and central to our judicial system. I’m glad we have now been encouraged to respect it.
That encouragement to respect our institutions is precisely what former President Trump has failed to do by attacking the legitimacy of our elections, courts and verdicts. A lot of people have bought into his BS, which spells trouble for democracy.
So at least in these two trials, we’ve seen the system work. And even people disappointed by the verdicts have called upon us all to respect the law and institutions such as trial-by-jury. That’s important.
At play in both verdicts is our country’s on-going and often fraught attempt to come to grips with issues of race and racism. Earlier this week I quoted UCSF Law School Professor, Lara Bazelon, on the issues in the Arbery trial. In that piece she also had some things to say about racism that seemed to me sensible and wise. Here they are.
“In the current, zero-sum culture war, racism is either everywhere or nowhere. In particular, the term systemic racism—shorthand for the belief that racial bias is baked into our institutions—has become a lightning rod. It is either pervasively present, or it is rarely present at all. The result is often two echo chambers. In one, “systemic racism” is elasticized beyond any reasonable definition; in the other, it is dispatched as a vestige of the distant past.
“Systemic racism is not an explanation for all of what ails our country. The notion that things like calculus or admissions tests are examples of systemic racism leaches the words of any real meaning. But just because some activists have misused the phrase does not mean it isn’t still very much alive, perhaps most significantly in the functioning of our criminal justice system. The Arbery case provides a concrete example.”
As these trials made some sound distinctions based on evidence and law, so we all must struggle to make careful distinctions, and to resist wild generalizations, such as those Bazelon cites, that “racism is either everywhere or nowhere.” Getting at the truth requires more than an ideology.