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OPINION | EDITORIAL: About that verdict

November 23, 2021 at 2:05 a.m.

`No, no!' said the Queen. `Sentence first--verdict afterwards.'

`Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. `The idea of having the sentence first!'

`Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.

`I won't!' said Alice.

`Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice ... .

--Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Thanks to social media and traditional media wanting to report the "truth" rather than facts, the verdict of public opinion had already been rendered before the trial began.

It was that Kyle Rittenhouse, a 17-year-old teenager at the time, had been described as a white nationalist (by Joe Biden), a white supremacist vigilante who crossed a state line into a distant Wisconsin town of Kenosha, a town where he had no connection, with an illegal AR-15 looking for trouble.

As it turns out, all of these allegations were untrue. As the trial revealed, he had no connections to white supremacist groups, his father and grandmother lived in Kenosha, and Kyle Rittenhouse had spent considerable time there; he owned an AR-15 but did not cross a state line with it, and that distant town of Kenosha was some 20 miles away from his hometown in Antioch, Ill.

It's hard to imagine news reporting and opinion columns getting more facts wrong. It's a classic example of what happens in journalism when you depend more on what you think is the "truth" instead of reporting facts. See our statement of core values on page 2, today and every day.

It all started when a police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back, and Mr. Blake is now paralyzed for life. Soon protests turned into a violent riot in Kenosha, with looting and significant damage to private property.

Then the first of many major mistakes were made. The police offered a tepid response, and when that was ineffective, no National Guard was called to quell the rioting. There was no excuse for that in a country that values the rule of law and the rights to private property.

Seeing that there was so little protection for the public and their property, the next major mistake, and a tragic one, was to entice people to Kenosha to try to protect property themselves. This included 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who made the mistake of his life in Kenosha.

We don't expect 17-year-old teenagers to use the best of judgment, which he certainly didn't, but he probably would never have been there that night if the police and the National Guard had been protecting the community.

After a jury deliberating for 3 1/2 days and rendered not guilty verdicts on all five counts, many expressed surprise and anger. It's probably because they had already made up their minds, and more importantly, had not watched the trial on television. Anyone who did realized quickly that most of the conventional pretrial understanding of what happened was wrong.

When Mr. Rittenhouse was chased by one attacker who earlier had said he wanted to kill him, Rittenhouse was yelling "friendly, friendly, friendly..." while retreating. But his attacker tried to grab his gun, which was a fatal mistake.

Another attacker hit Kyle Rittenhouse with a skateboard, another fatal mistake. The third attacker testified that Rittenhouse did not fire until the attacker first pointed his own gun at him.

So Kyle Rittenhouse, who never should have been in the situation he found himself in that night, claimed he was in danger of being killed, and acted in self-defense. The jury believed him.

The judge allowed cameras in the courtroom, which permitted all Americans to see the trial for themselves. For those who did, it seemed likely that he would be found not guilty.

This case shows the value of cameras in the courtroom. Because so many had seen it, and despite speculation to the contrary, there were no disturbances in Kenosha the night after the trial verdict. If Rittenhouse had shot three Black men instead of three white men, it might have been different. But it appears the jurors decided that while race might have been a reason for the riot, the life-and-death struggle that night among four white men was not about race.

Unfortunately the judge received numerous threats, and he is reconsidering having cameras in his courtroom again. If so, that would be a step backward for the judicial system in America.

There are a lot of lessons learned in this tragic outcome, in which two men are dead, one is injured, and Kyle Rittenhouse's life may never be the same.

First is that protests should be peaceful and not violent, as preached by Martin Luther King. Second, the police and law enforcement should respond quickly and forcefully in the event of a chaotic riot. Third, you should be very cautious about what you read on social media. And journalism will never be a trusted source unless reporters and editors, and indeed opinion writers, rely on facts first in their pursuit of truth. Lastly, parents should do all the can to prevent teenagers from getting involved in a violent riot.

This is a painful and tragic way to learn these lessons. But if not learned, it will be even more painful for more people in the future.

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