Which verdict do you follow? Verdicts from the Rittenhouse house fire

Evidence seen as trailblazing, but it’s difficult to see what effect it will have on future cases Judge for yourself: does your verdict follow the law, or did you forget your Miranda warning? |…

Which verdict do you follow? Verdicts from the Rittenhouse house fire

Evidence seen as trailblazing, but it’s difficult to see what effect it will have on future cases

Judge for yourself: does your verdict follow the law, or did you forget your Miranda warning? | Marc Bennetts Read more

The acquittal of members of the house-building group Rittenhouse was widely interpreted as a significant legal victory for white-collar criminals. The eight defendants were cleared of all charges of organising what had been described as “one of the worst house fires in Philadelphia history”.

The men were accused of conspiring to sabotage the builders of a house being built near the Reading canal. Two died in the blaze, and a third blamed a painting for igniting the fire. The jury did not see it as a crime.

The trial raised, for some, a sense of a legal gauntlet being thrown down in a new era of the age of austerity. Professor Richard Gillham at Penn State Law School called it a precedent. Gillham and many other legal academics see the acquittal of the Rittenhouse defendants as highly significant.

Because the most serious charges – the forced closing of a contract, and obstruction of the administration of justice – came from the prosecution’s victims and not from the police, the outcome could be used to demonstrate that civil liberties are under threat by the law.

On the other hand, you could have said the same thing about the outcome of the Pistorius trial in 2014. The family of Reeva Steenkamp lost a fight to bring an antiques dealer to trial for murder.

Jonathan Caplan, professor of public law at Middlesex University, thinks the jury was right. “When the question of what is criminal and what is not criminal comes to the forefront, it doesn’t make very good headlines.”

He thinks it’s unrealistic to expect juries to judge the law in such abstract terms. “Civil liberties and law enforcement both have their ends and they are protected by each other. An acquittal should be an indication that the law itself is fair and impartial in the matter.

“That said, it would be erroneous to assume that the fact that this did not happen in the Rittenhouse case – namely, a conviction of Rittenhouse defendants – is a good reason for the prosecution to quit, particularly if the defence raised an opening to a juror to strike it down as an abuse of liberty.

“If they do not do that, they are being very prescriptive about the views of juries that need to be held today. Because of the focus on defence law, it is much harder for judges to make decisions that have nothing to do with their own method of rendering a verdict.”

Simon Latham, dean of Bradford University’s faculty of law, doesn’t see the acquittal as a watershed but sees the prosecution’s case as trailblazing. “The charges against these Rittenhouse defendants were pretty novel and the circumstances were peculiar. No innocent person ever tried to tamper with work that was clearly going to be completed. This was an innocent people with totally innocent intentions being charged with an offence against the state.”

He is of the view that, whether or not the Rittenhouse defendants were successful in court, it will have had an impact: “The general public understand that any crime involving occupational bodies is liable to attract draconian penalties. There may be real issues of law and right and wrong, but a lot of people are now seeing that if you do the wrong thing, you will get punished.”

Barbara Isaacson, director of the US justice thinktank the Brennan Center, notes that the prosecution for sabotage was not challenged by the defendants.

“Had the Rittenhouse defendants successfully challenged the prosecutors’ fraud, conspiracy and obstruction allegations – and, for good measure, alleged fabrication of evidence and perjury, the judge would have thrown out the case against them – then I think the decision by a jury to acquit them would have looked a lot more controversial.”

Ken Braun, professor of comparative law at the University of California, Los Angeles, says it would be a mistake to think that this case is establishing a “new norm” for white-collar prosecutions.

“I don’t think it has had a long-term impact on convictions or acquittals. If anything, it is a wake-up call about the dangers to the strength of prosecutions against big businesses when prosecutors go too far.�

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