Lessons from the Rittenhouse verdict
Daniel Suhr | It’s all about the rule of law
Full access isn’t far.
We can’t release more of our sound journalism and commentary without a subscription, but we can make it easy for you to come aboard.
Get into news that is grounded in facts and Biblical truth for as low as $3.99 per month.LET'S GO
Already a member? Sign in.
There is no greater exercise of the state’s power on behalf of the community than its police power, to take away our liberty for a prison cell and, in the extreme, to administer the death penalty.
The gravity of depriving an individual of his most cherished freedoms—and even his life—is why our legal tradition insists on the highest standards of proof and multiple tiers of review involving both generalists (jurors) and specialists (judges). We insist upon this to ensure a criminal case administers justice impartially, as much as is possible within the bounds of human fallibility.
Over the past week, our nation has watched the display of our justice system at work as Americans sat transfixed by the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. Rarely does the entire nation tune in to the proceedings of a courtroom with such rapt attention.
The trial has been an education for many about the fundamentals of our justice system, including the humanity of its participants. More importantly, the Rittenhouse “not guilty” verdict reminds us of certain important truths about our country’s system of justice, truths grounded in a lineage shaped by the Bible.
First, we are all presumed innocent in court. Politicians, perhaps feeling pressure from within their political base, feel the need to publicly prejudge a case before all the evidence is presented and a jury deliberates. That’s wrong, even when a sitting United States president does so ham-fistedly. The government must prove its case before it can put any of us away. Politicians, pundits, and social media commentariat alike should all exercise greater caution and hold off on opining before all the facts are known.
Second, we are all innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. This is a necessarily high standard, higher than the “more likely than not” standard we use when only monetary damages are at stake. When the state seeks to deprive us of our liberty, the burden is appropriately a heavy one. These standards of review are gifts bequeathed to us from the Christian tradition that heralded due process.
Third, we entrust justice to “a jury of our peers,” like the twelve residents of Kenosha, Wis., who sat through all the evidence and diligently deliberated on their verdict. William F. Buckley, Jr., once joked that he’d rather be governed by the first 1,000 people in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard University. To reformat a quote from William F. Buckley, Jr., I would rather have criminal charges against me decided by the first twelve names in the Boston phonebook than the faculty of Harvard Law School.
Fourth, we must be ever mindful of the fact that the courts are to render a verdict on specific charges and qualified evidence. The question before the court is limited to specific charges grounded in the violation of a particular statute. Words matter.
Finally, we should not overlook the basic reality that all of the above, and much besides, reflects the fact that we have a system of justice born from our longing for justice. The desire for justice is the product of a Creator who has implanted the thirst for righteousness and rectitude within our reason and our hearts. In this country, we do not follow mob rule. The days when we did, when people were lynched for alleged crimes, were among our darkest days. We no longer hang people from the nearest tree for horse thieving. Thanks be to God.
From the moment of arrest, we have rights: Miranda rights. The right to counsel. The right to remain silent. The right to a jury of our peers. These rights are precious and important.
Nor do we allow executive rule, where the government may do as it wishes without any independent check; ours is not a police state. Our rights are not there for the convenience of the government. Quite the opposite, in fact: They make the government’s job more difficult. Think about this: If you are too poor to afford your own lawyer, the government will pay for a lawyer for you to oppose the government. The governments of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or North Korea were not so beneficent. Though this is normal to us, just as normal as hearing a Miranda warning on a television show, it is extraordinary in the history of the world.
In Acts, Paul insists on his rights as a Roman citizen (Acts 16, 22). Paul’s life ends in Rome because he exercises his right as a citizen to insist on trial before the emperor himself for his alleged crimes (Acts 25). But only a small fraction of residents in the Roman Empire were citizens. Americans are blessed to live in a nation where every one of us is protected far more than Paul.
If you enjoyed this article and would like to support WORLD's brand of Biblically sound journalism, click here.