When Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges for fatally shooting two people last year in Kenosha, Wis., shock waves reverberated throughout the Stanford community.
To some student leaders and legal experts, the verdict represented the endorsement of vigilantism, setting a cultural precedent that individuals can get away with carrying and using a firearm against protestors. To critics of the case, it has come to represent the concerns that marginalized communities have expressed about bias and lack of accountability within the American criminal justice system.
Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) President Christian Giadolor ’21 M.A. ’22 said that the verdict also highlights what he sees as a “moment to acknowledge where we are as an institution and University.”
“For many people who share my experiences as a Black person in this country, the verdict is not surprising,” Giadolor said. “But it affirms our experience in this country that white supremacy is pervasive and that the arc to justice is long.” Giadolor added that the ASSU “will work collaboratively to uplift these communities and those vulnerable to violence and push for a world that is more just, equitable and liberated.”
Some Stanford law professors echoed Giadolor’s sentiments, suggesting that the case provides reason to revisit a number of larger questions as a country and community. According to law professor and former federal prosecutor David Sklansky, the nation needs to reexamine how we regulate firearms and question whether a Black teenager would have received the same treatment under the same circumstances.
But the specifics of the case can also help provide some clarity regarding how the jury came to its unanimous verdict, according to Stanford law professor Robert Weisberg J.D. ’79. While critics of the case have focused on what type of gun Rittenhouse was carrying and the legality of his possession, Weisberg explained that it was legally permissible for Rittenhouse to openly carry an AR-15 in Wisconsin.
Weisberg, who specializes in criminal law, said that the underlying issue in this case is the letter of the Wisconsin law, which permits minors to carry rifles as long as the barrel is of a certain size. The Rittenhouse case raises questions regarding the pattern of leniency toward white defendants and hard-handedness toward people from marginalized communities, whether through the legal system or policing. But while this pattern may be disturbing, Weisberg said, it doesn’t mean that the verdict was wrong. What Weisberg said was most alarming to him was that the law allowed Rittenhouse to be legally acquitted.
Elias Aceves ’22, a representative from Stanford’s Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), reiterated that in a legal sense, Rittenhouse’s acquittal is logical. In Aceves’s view, the bigger problem at hand is the legal system itself.
“The question must be why we live in a system that enables these things in the first place, which opens a more complex discussion of whether the U.S. and its liberal-democratic principles are obsolete or not,” Aceves said.
Many critics of the verdict have contended that by bringing an open-carry gun to a protest, Rittenhouse was reckless and provoked chaos. But what made the prosecution’s job so difficult, according to Weisberg, was the fact that the case was framed around self-defense.
“It all comes to the same thing. He fired a gun intentionally. Whether he intended to kill, who knows — but he certainly fired the gun intentionally. And the jury believed that he acted in self-defense with all three people.” Weisberg said.
Sklansky said that the case underscores how politically polarized the country has become about virtually every issue, including criminal justice.
According to Sklansky, Americans may be able to let go of concerns that the case would set a harmful legal precedent. The case is about a particular person at a particular time facing a particular circumstance under a particular set of Wisconsin laws, Sklansky said. According to Sklansky and Weisberg, Rittenhouse’s case will not set a legal precedent as big as the parents of one of the victims feared it would because it did not come out of a higher court.
But the cultural precedent that the case could set is troubling, according to Weisberg. Giadolor drew a connection between this phenomenon and the rising trend of race-based transgressions and microaggressions within the Stanford community.
“There are two Stanfords, according to the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion survey,” Giadolor said. “One where students are immune to transgressions, and another where students face at least one transgression or microaggression during their time at the University. 63% of Black students faced at least one transgression in the past two years, a time where most students were not on campus. That shows how large the problem is.”
Giadolor said that the ASSU executive team plans to show its support on campus for those who feel hurt or endangered by the verdict through a sit out and by sending an email about the case to the student community.
“I think many Black people I have talked to since Friday have been exhausted, and I hope that this message gives support,” Giadolor said.