What the Ahmaud Arbery Murder and Rittenhouse Trials Tell Us About Race and the Justice System

Both trials have made national headlines and have important implications for the racial justice movement in the U.S.

This story was updated on Jan. 7 at 3:42 p.m. ET.

Friday's sentencing hearing for the three men convicted of murdering Ahmaud Arbery ended with two of them, Travis and Gregory McMichael, receiving the harshest sentence sought by prosecutors and the third, William "Roddie" Bryan, being given the chance at parole.

While murder is a capital offense in Georgia, the prosecutors asked for life without parole, which Judge Timothy Walmsley gave to the McMichaels but not their neighbor, Bryan. The three men who killed Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man, while he was running in their neighborhood are also facing federal hate crime charges.

The initial verdict on the McMichaels and Bryan trial came in late November during a tumultuous time for racial justice in the U.S. It was just five days after a jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two men during a protest over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Both sets of defendants claimed self-defense in their trials, with the men who shot Arbery also claiming they were making a lawful citizen's arrest.

When Kyle Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, on a night of racial justice protests during the summer of 2020, he carried an AR-style semi-automatic rifle. Now on trial for murder after shooting and killing two men and wounding a third, his fate hinges on whether jurors believe he fired in self-defense. Criminal defense attorney Joseph Tully joined LX News to dissect Rittenhouse's self-defense argument.

"One of the things that you hope convictions do is persuade people against [committing] similar types of crimes, sending the message hopefully that people will be punished if they do this themselves," Justin Hansford, professor at Howard University School of Law, told NBCLX. But, he added, "it remains to be seen" whether the Arbery murder verdict will discourage future hate crimes or prompt outrage among white supremacist groups, who will then cause more violence.

For Georgetown University Law Center professor Tiffany Jeffers, the takeaway from the Rittenhouse verdict is clear: "[It tells] white supremacists that they can go out, take the law into their own hands, and then claim to be fearful and that they were defending themselves and not be held accountable in any way." (Rittenhouse's defense denied that he's ever been a part of white supremacist groups.)

What was the role of race in these trials?

Even though Rittenhouse, a white teen, shot three white men, the fact that he did it at a Black Lives Matter protest, plus the prosecution's claim that Rittenhouse flashed white power signs in a bar a few months after getting out on bail, made race a central theme in the trial. (His defense denied the accusation.)

The trial also highlighted a racial double standard that research bears out, Jeffers said: Black children are more likely to be seen as criminals than white children. For example, Jeffers pointed out that Kenosha County Judge Bruce E. Schroeder ruled before the trial that the men Rittenhouse shot — Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz — could not be be referred to as his victims.

Jeffers said she believes this mentality played a crucial role in his acquittal.

"[Self-defense] is very subjective. It's difficult to challenge what someone subjectively believed they were in fear of in the moment," she explained. "His whiteness brings a level of empathy and believability that Black defendants don't get."

She added that Rittenhouse drove 30 miles to "insert [himself] ... in a conflict with a weapon," which she believes should've made the self-defense argument considerably less plausible.

"We all have certain Constitutional rights and protections when we're accused of crimes," Jeffers said. "We should absolutely be entitled to our Constitutional protections regardless of race, class, gender, religion, anything. But we don't see that playing out in the court system equally and equitably. ... If Kyle Rittenhouse house had been Black or brown ... I think the outcome would have been different."

Kyle Rittenhouse is on trial for shooting three people, two of them fatally, at a protest over the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Illinois teenager will have his fate decided by 20-person jury panel that contains one person of color, according to NBC News. Legal analyst and criminal defense attorney Molly Parmer weighs in.

For the McMichaels and Bryan trial, "it's simply hard to imagine that if Ahmaud Arbery was a white person jogging in the morning he'd be dead today," Brandon Buskey, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Criminal Law Reform Project, said.

He also stressed that the defense's argument had roots in racism, as citizen's arrest laws grew out of slave patrols and efforts to control the Black population. Jeffers added that Bryan's attorney's attempt to bar Black pastors from the courtroom leaned into "racist tropes."

The racial composition of the juries in these trials has also prompted backlash. Each jury had one person of color.

The trial of three men charged with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery began with an unusual choice by the defense. One of the three attorneys representing Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan decided to make his opening statement after prosecutors laid out all their evidence. University of Georgia law professor Ronald Carlson tells us more about the openings of the trial.

What do these trials show us about the progress we've made since the racial reckoning of 2020?

Buskey called out that "these cases do not on their own put white supremacy on trial, they don't put the state of race relations on trial," because their narrow focuses are on self-defense and making a lawful citizen's arrest.

"For both cases, the lessons with racial reckoning are very difficult," Buskey said. "We have to ... understand that the work of reforming our police state or undoing mass incarceration, undoing the white supremacy that these cases often front will have to be ongoing, irrespective of the ultimate verdict in either case."

Jeffers said she thinks the cultural shift in 2020 wasn't a racial reckoning but rather, "People were open to considering the Black Lives Matter movement as something that was ideologically acceptable in the country." And the Rittenhouse verdict showed there's a perception that "anyone who causes harm to people in that movement, they just felt scared, and that's acceptable, too."

Hansford echoed this idea, explaining that the verdicts together suggest "Black Lives Matter protesters are just so demonized right now ... and that's an easier target than the guy jogging down the street who happens to be Black."

"[The Arbery murder] case had a real, tangible effect on the psyche of many Black Americans," he added. "I'm very glad that we got a guilty verdict. If it had been a not-guilty verdict, it would have been so traumatizing."

What do these trials mean for the future of racial justice?

Hansford said he's seen these trials push the national conversation about race in the criminal justice system beyond the police violence.

"For the first time people are starting to really think, 'What about judges?'" he said. "That's a very necessary thing ... to start focusing ... on the entire justice system because all these people play supporting roles in what's been happening, and the police wouldn't behave like they did if they didn't have prosecutors, lawyers and judges in lockstep with them."

He added that he feels the prosecutors in both the Rittenhouse and the McMichaels and Bryan trials tried to "whitewash" the cases and "act like race didn't have anything to do with what was happening. ... People want ... a colorblind approach to getting justice, but you're risking a lot by acting like race doesn't matter."

Looking ahead to another prominent murder trial — that of Fort Worth police officer Aaron Dean, who shot and killed Atatiana Jefferson through a back window of her home in 2019 — Jeffers said she'll be keeping an eye jury selection and the pre-trial motions, such as how much of the victim's and defendant's records are allowed to be presented.

"Those types of rulings are really what makes a difference in these local violent crime trials," she said, adding that this trial will be especially significant as it's the first major one with a Black woman victim in recent memory. The trial's set for January.

"I'll be looking to see if there is a differentiation between how the victim is addressed, if there are sexist tropes that now come up in addition to a racist tropes," she said.