- Columnist Cameron Smith is a Memphis-born, Brentwood-raised recovering political attorney raising three boys in Nolensville, Tennessee.
As our nation watched two high profile trials reach verdicts leading up to Thanksgiving, our American sense of justice was on trial.
Despite the constant distractions from our political theater of the absurd, the trials demonstrate that we have the capacity for reasoned judgment as well.
When the judge announced the Rittenhouse verdict, the sense of disappointment from the Democratic side of the political spectrum was palpable.
President Biden claimed he was “angry and concerned” while acknowledging that the “jury has spoken.”
Vice President Kamala Harris suggested that the Rittenhouse verdict was evidence that America has “a lot more work to do to make the criminal justice system more equitable.”
Conservative types celebrated. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga) introduced a bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the teenager who killed two men in self-defense. Rep. Paul Gosar, R-Arizona, tweeted, “I will arm wrestle [Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fl)] to get dibs for Kyle as an intern.”
Seemingly overnight, a teen who tragically killed two men in self-defense became a quasi-celebrity.
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The juries cared about the facts
The virulent political themes shading the spectacle of the trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin seeped into the Brunswick, Georgia courtroom more than 1,000 miles away.
An attorney defending one of the men charged with Arbery’s death appealed to partisan politics in an unsuccessful bid to exonerate his client.
“Just because . . . they haven’t put a podium up outside with a hangman’s noose on it doesn’t mean that this isn’t a trial, despite the best efforts of this court, this isn’t a trial that hasn’t been infected by mob violence of a woke left mob,” attorney Kevin Gough said during the trial.
Never mind his client stood with two other men accused of wrongfully detaining and ultimately murdering an unarmed Black man. Who cares about facts and law in the face of a “woke left mob” that really amounted to little more than pastors in the courtroom?
An almost entirely white jury did.
If a Georgia jury can differentiate between the bizarre world of political entertainment and reality, so can we. In both cases, the juries engaged the task before them with tremendous consideration and respect.
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Far too many leaders are providing hot takes
While the pundit and political classes effectively beclowned themselves, the juries applied the law to the facts and reached reasonable conclusions about the guilt of the respective defendants. That’s it.
The members of the jury weren’t declaring their preferred policy positions. They weren’t virtue signaling on how to protest or engage protesters. They didn’t offer a national statement on best practices for stopping perceived criminals.
The jury didn’t even set rules for lethal self-defense. They only offered their judgment in the unique contexts of each case.
That sober effort should be our approach to so many critical decisions facing our nation. It’s what working through tough issues should be. Yet we’re more focused on providing hot takes for our political sideshow than we are on engaging our actual political and legal systems. Instead of helping us figure out the difference, far too many of our leaders are in on the act.
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We must chew on the facts and we can do better
Greene’s Congressional Gold Medal stunt is absurd. Rittenhouse isn’t in league with the likes of Pope John Paul II or the Tuskegee Airmen.
Wrestling over Rittenhouse as an intern is beyond creepy. It’s not just conservative types doing it either. Democrats twisting every Republican action as evidence of white supremacy isn’t any better. Describing documented violence and destruction of property as “mostly peaceful protests” might pass as a technical definition, but it isn’t honest.
Addressing issues in a manner that makes progress matches poorly with political talking points.
As one example, consider the fact we’re talking about these two trials at all. Many cases never go to trial.
According to the Marshall Project, “about 94 percent of felony convictions at the state level and about 97 percent at the federal level are the result of plea bargains.”
If there’s any legal takeaway from these cases, it’s that we should ask a lot of questions as to whether our criminal justice system is functioning properly for most felony convictions that don’t receive any media hype.
Addressing that issue is complicated. It doesn’t make for great tweets or sound bites. We must chew on the facts, reach reasonable conclusions about what we can do better, and build a majority coalition to make those changes.
To borrow from the United States Supreme Court, our nation possesses evolving standards of decency that hopefully mark the progress of a maturing society. Progress to that end requires more work than entertainment. The Rittenhouse and Arbery verdicts should remind us of the massive difference between the two.
Columnist Cameron Smith is a Memphis-born, Brentwood-raised recovering political attorney raising three boys in Nolensville, Tennessee, with his particularly patient wife, Justine. Direct outrage or agreement to [email protected] or @DCameronSmith on Twitter.