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Justice, youth, and the privilege of white innocence

Kyle Rittenhouse was 17 when he shot three men, two fatally. Jurors must reject his age as an excuse for murder.

Judge Bruce Schroeder (left) and Kyle Rittenhouse look at a video screen as attorneys for both sides argue about a video during Rittenhouse's trial at the Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis., on Nov. 12.Mark Hertzberg/ZUMA Press Wire/Associated Press
An undated photo of George Stinney Jr., 14, the youngest person ever executed in South Carolina, in 1944.Uncredited

History doesn’t say whether George Stinney Jr. cried during his two-hour murder trial. No one knows if any lawyer, including his own, referred to him repeatedly as “a kid” to curry sympathy with the jury.

What’s known is that it took an all-white jury 10 minutes to wrongly convict Stinney in 1944 for murdering two white girls in rural South Carolina. He was 14. Two months later, Stinney, 95 pounds and barely over 5 feet tall, sat on a Bible as a booster seat in the electric chair. Exonerated 70 years later, Stinney is often mentioned as the youngest person this nation has ever executed.


Being a Black child afforded Stinney no mercy from a death sentence. For Kyle Rittenhouse, his lawyer is wielding Rittenhouse’s youth as a reason to acquit an accused murderer.

“My client was 17 years old,” said Mark Richards, Rittenhouse’s lead defense attorney, during his closing argument before the jury Monday. “His actions are to be judged as a 17-year-old’s.”

Under the guise of protecting businesses from looters, Rittenhouse crossed state lines from Antioch, Ill., to Kenosha, Wis., armed with a loaded AR-15 assault rifle, on Aug. 25, 2020. During protests against the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Rittenhouse shot three men, killing two of them — Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber. Like Rittenhouse, they were also white.

On Monday, Judge Bruce Schroeder, whose behavior throughout the trial has been a disgrace, dismissed a charge of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18 even, though Rittenhouse was under 18 and in possession of a dangerous weapon.

Rittenhouse was a self-styled vigilante who intentionally inserted himself into a volatile situation. Yet Richards portrayed Rittenhouse as a “17-year-old kid trying to help his community” who had no choice but to defend himself from the men he shot.


Richards often referred to Rittenhouse’s age at the time of the shootings or called him “a kid.” He always used his name “Kyle,” familiarizing him like a boy from the neighborhood. He wanted his client seen not as a murderer but as a frightened naïf who did what any citizen —or patriot, as Rittenhouse’s far-right fanboys and girls believe — would have done.

That’s why Rittenhouse, now 18, didn’t just cry on the stand last week when he testified in his own defense. That bit of theater demanded something hammier than tears. He blubbered like a baby. His snorting, gasping, and facial contortions were so excessive, the judge called a 10-minute time-out so that Rittenhouse could compose himself. Rittenhouse expressed no remorse. He wept not for his victims (a word the judge disallowed during the trial as too “loaded”), but for himself and especially his audience — a nearly all-white jury.

If Rittenhouse were Black, his tears would have gotten him nowhere. Even when Black children are victims of racial violence, they receive little compassion and are perceived as adults rather than minors. During a 2012 bail bond hearing, George Zimmerman, who killed Trayvon Martin, told Martin’s parents, “I did not know how old he was. I thought he was a little bit younger than I am.” Martin was 17. Zimmerman was 28.

When two Cleveland cops killed Tamir Rice in 2014, they said they believed the 12-year-old Black child was much older, a sentiment echoed by a prosecutor who said Rice was “big for his age,” as if that justified his death. No charges were brought against the officers.


Yet in 2018 when Brett Kavanaugh was a Supreme Court nominee accused of committing sexual assault when he was 17, Rod Dreher, an American Conservative editor, tweeted, “I do not understand why the loutish, drunken behavior of a 17 year old high school boy has anything to tell us about the character of a 53 year old judge.”

Likewise Rittenhouse’s attorney has treated the killing of two men as a youthful indiscretion. Richards has turned his client into a courtroom Benjamin Button, getting younger as the trial has progressed. Richards didn’t just put his thumb on the scale. He crushed it with his full weight to sway the jurors, implying that violent men attacked a kid and that kid saved not only himself but also others.

“I’m glad [Rittenhouse] shot [Rosenbaum] because if Joseph Rosenbaum had got that gun, I don’t for a minute believe he wouldn’t have used it against somebody else,” Richards said. “He was irrational and crazy.”

To shield his client, Richards put the dead on trial, echoing an egregious miscarriage of justice more than six decades ago. At the 1955 trial of J.W. Milam and Roy Bryant, the two white men who lynched Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black child in Mississippi, defense attorney Sidney Carlton told the all-white, all-male jury, “Your ancestors will turn over in their grave, and I’m sure every last Anglo-Saxon one of you has the courage to free these men.”


After deliberating for an hour, they did.

The Rittenhouse trial jurors are expected to take considerably more time. Richards claims his client’s “conduct on Aug. 25 was privileged based upon the actions of Mr. Rosenbaum and others.” A jury will decide. Yet whatever verdict is rendered, it won’t change the privilege and shelter from responsibility this nation too often confers on young white men like Rittenhouse.

Renée Graham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at Follow her @reneeygraham.