INDIANAPOLIS—The jury in Kenosha, Wisconsin, found Kyle Rittenhouse “not guilty.”
It didn’t say he was innocent.
That’s a distinction that matters.
While many people tend to think the not guilty verdict means the same thing as innocent, it doesn’t.
Innocence means that one bears no responsibility for wrongdoing or was not in any way complicit in an evil act.
Not guilty, on the other hand, means that the state did not meet the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that a person was guilty of a crime.
That’s what happened in the Rittenhouse case. The prosecutors could not prove with certainty that Rittenhouse was guilty of two counts of homicide, one count of attempted homicide and two counts of recklessly endangering safety.
Because the prosecution could not establish that Rittenhouse went to Kenosha intending to kill and maim, the jury had little choice but to find him not guilty and set him free.
That’s because the burden was on the state to prove his guilt—not on Rittenhouse’s attorneys to demonstrate his innocence.
This is as it should be.
A large part of the reason the American legal system places a much heavier burden on the prosecution in criminal cases is that history is replete with instances of human beings being thrown behind bars on phony, trumped-up or non-existent charges. In this country, we have adhered to a belief that the evidence against a person should be close to overwhelming before she or he is denied liberty.
Even though it sometimes does not feel like this is good or right—and for many Americans, this doubtless is one of those moments—it is both good and right.
We cannot be a free nation if the government’s power to imprison citizens isn’t placed within strict limits.
The “crime” in our system is not that Kyle Rittenhouse was given the benefit of the doubt.
No, the “crime” is that too many of Rittenhouse’s fellow citizens aren’t accorded the same legal protections. It may be because they don’t have the same network of wealthy rightwing ideologues providing them with topflight legal talent. It may be because they don’t have conservative members of Congress, the media and former presidents of the United States doing everything they can to sway the jury and the court.
It may even be that they just weren’t born with skin as pale as Rittenhouse’s.
But the reality is that they all too often face a different system of justice than Kyle Rittenhouse did. That system too often tilts the burden of proof in ways both subtle and unsubtle away from the prosecution to the defense.
It forces them to prove innocence rather than burdening the state to prove guilt.
That’s a heavy burden.
It’s one that Kyle Rittenhouse—despite the legal talent at his disposal and the powerful backers standing behind him—likely couldn’t have met.
But it’s one he may have to.
There are some signs that the man Rittenhouse shot who survived and the families of the two he killed now plan civil suits.
In that sort of litigation, the burden of the plaintiffs isn’t nearly as heavy and the range of evidence that can be entered into the record can be broader. A jury may get to see the video recording of him celebrating the shootings with white nationalists and weigh that against his professions, however tearful, of regret.
The lawyers for the plaintiffs won’t have to prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Rittenhouse planned to kill people when he went to Kenosha. They’ll just have to establish that his actions led to the deaths of two people and the wounding of another.
Rittenhouse will have to prove that he wasn’t responsible in any way.
That he was innocent.
He’ll need more than tears and a friendly judge to do that.
Because not guilty is not the same thing as innocent.
Not by a long shot.