The judge, Bruce Schroeder, too made headlines for his erratic, seemingly uninformed roar and his general quirkiness. Some of his decisions seemed biased in favor of Mr. Rittenhouse, such as when he forbade prosecutors to call the people Mr. Rittenhouse shot “victims,” saying the term was “overcharged,” but defense attorneys allowed them to be “arsonists.” ” to name. and “looters” if the evidence supports such labels. But Judge Schroeder is not an anomaly. He is 75 years old and the longest serving circuit judge in Wisconsin. Anyone who has practiced criminal law or even attended a trial knows that many judges are not the objective and omniscient arbitrators of the popular imagination: they are headstrong and sometimes biased. I’d love to live in a world where judges, whatever their personal idiosyncrasies, are equally respectful of needy clients, but a sentencing here wouldn’t have made it that way.
Convicting Kyle Rittenhouse would have sent Kyle Rittenhouse to jail – that’s all. Laws and legal procedures are not codes of ethics and cannot bear the weight of moral judgments on a national scale. It is a mistake to look at these processes to repair social damage, answer a larger question, or fulfill an idea of justice. Beyond the futility of hope, looking at the criminal system — which was heavily influenced by slave codes and still serves to reinforce racial hierarchies — further focuses it in our moral discourse.
Why do we turn to blockbuster lawsuits to satisfy our thirst for justice? Americans are taught from birth that punishment solves problems. Retaliation is the closest thing to a common religion. Redress sure feels good, like a sugar high; I too felt a surge of relief when I read that Mr. Bryan and the McMichaels had been convicted of murdering Mr. Arbery – but it doesn’t make us stronger or healthier as a society.
The fixation on these processes also points to a lack of justice elsewhere. Police brutality seems to be an inescapable part of American life, but convicting Kyle Rittenhouse or even convicting Rusten Sheskey, the officer who shot Jacob Blake, wouldn’t have stopped the abuses. Nor can criminal convictions rectify the deep racial inequalities that lead to black people being killed by the police. George Floyd’s killer, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of murder on April 20, 2021. That did not prevent the death of Ma’Khia Bryant, a 16-year-old black girl who was shot the same day by police in Columbus, Ohio.
The injustice extends beyond police brutality. Conspiracy theories exacerbate public health crises. The attack on voting rights by the right is bringing us ever closer to the authoritarianism of minorities. And urgent warnings of climate disasters have been ignored for decades. A victory for the prosecutor in the Rittenhouse case may have felt righteous to those on the left of the culture wars, but it wouldn’t have solved any of these problems.
Nor would it have loosened the grip of racism on our legal system.
To get a sense of how racism permeates our criminal justice system, I’d recommend paying less attention to blockbuster cases and instead visit a local criminal court on any given day and witness the parade of colored low-income people shuffling in court, most of them charged with minor, victimless crimes. Note, as a judge decides within minutes how much money it takes for each person to get out of a cage. Listen to the defense attorney detailing each client’s living conditions. And then ask what can be done about it. Which structures, literally or figuratively, need to be dismantled, built or altered to create the change we seek?
That work is harder and slower, but maybe one day my clients won’t be called “bodies.” Perhaps they will be given the same dignity and respect as Mr. Rittenhouse.