Rittenhouse and Arbery cases expose deep rifts on gun rights and vigilantism in US

Trial of Kyle Rittenhouse and killing of Ahmaud Arbery point to country's ‘vigilante justice’ problem

Protesters demonstrate in Kenosha, Wisconsin, during the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse. Getty Images / AFP
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Two trials taking place hundreds of kilometres apart have captivated the US for weeks, as they have exposed both America’s deep racial divisions and the growing propensity for vigilante justice flourishing under lax gun laws.

A jury in the US state of Wisconsin will start deliberating whether to convict Kyle Rittenhouse on Tuesday, who opened fire on protesters in Kenosha last year, for offences including first-degree reckless homicide.

In Brunswick, Georgia, another jury is hearing evidence in the death of Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed black jogger who was chased down and killed by three white men.

“In both cases, the defendants elected to take the law into their own hands and offer themselves as private guardians and public safety,” said Eric Ruben, assistant professor at Southern Methodist Univeristy’s Dedman School of Law.

On August 25, 2020, Mr Rittenhouse, then 17, travelled from his home in Illinois to Kenosha, Wisconsin, the site of several days of protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a black man.

Mr Rittenhouse shot and killed two people and wounded another.

He said at his trial that he had travelled to Kenosha to help protect locals' property and offer emergency medical services. To assist in this quest, he brought along an assault rifle.

It is not uncommon to see heavily armed civilians at protests across the US - both in the role of protesters as well as self-proclaimed security - but gun control advocates say this is intimidating and dangerous.

Kyle Rittenhouse breaks down on witness stand

Kyle Rittenhouse breaks down on witness stand

“It does change the dynamic of protests in our country,” said Jeri Bonavia, executive director of Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort (WAVE).

Mr Rittenhouse’s lawyers have argued that he fired on the protesters in self-defence.

In his closing arguments, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger said self-defence does not apply to Mr Rittenhouse's case.

“You cannot claim self-defence against a danger you create. That’s critical right here. If you’re the one who is threatening others, you lose the right to claim self-defence.”

Ahmaud Arbery was run down by Gregory McMichael, his son, Travis, and their neighbour, William "Roddie" Bryan before being shot.

The three men's defence lawyers have argued that the three men killed Arbery in self-defence during a citizen’s arrest gone wrong.

The men say they believed Arbery had been fleeing the scene of a burglary.

Arbery was killed in February 2020, which Mr Bryan recorded on his mobile phone. It took nearly three months for the men to be arrested and charged.

Ahmaud Arbery's mother says she's 'grateful' as jury selection begins

Ahmaud Arbery's mother says she's 'grateful' as jury selection begins

From the beginning, the case has laid bare the omnipresent racial tension in the US. The accused are all white, the victim black. Even the selection of the jury has raised eyebrows: out of the requisite 12 jurors, only one is black.

More than 1,600 people received jury summons. According the website Data USA, more than half the population of Brunswick, Georgia, where the incident took place is black and over a quarter of the population of Glynn County, from which the jury pool was drawn, is black.

“The fact that there's only one black [person] on the jury might make even more of a reaction than if the jury had been split down the middle or had 25 per cent African-American jurors,” said Christopher Slobogin, a law professor at Vanderbilt University.

“We are now seeing the inevitable outcomes of a society that accepts that the guys with the guns have some sort of extra judicial superpower,” Ms Bonavia told The National.

Her organisation WAVE is trying to change the laws to prevent vigilante justice, which she says is “not just at all".

Perhaps above all else, both cases boil down to citizens carrying guns, which legal analysts say led to these situations turning deadly.

“The guns that they're carrying come into play here, because what was the threat of death that they say they faced?" asked Mr Ruben.

“In both cases, the defendants assert that they feared that their own guns would be removed from them and turned on them. So, in other words, their own decision to carry guns became a justification to use them.”

Updated: November 16, 2021, 1:00 AM