During the Kyle Rittenhouse trial, there was one phrase that we heard often: self-defense. In August last year, the then-17-year-old shot three men, killing two and seriously injuring another at a Black Lives Matter protest in Wisconsin. He had driven across state lines to attend the protest and claimed in his testimony earlier this month that he did so to protect private property and provide first aid.
"Self-defense" means different things to different people, but Wisconsin law defines it as a "person privileged to threaten or intentionally use force against another for the purpose of preventing or terminating what the person reasonably believes to be an unlawful interference with his or her person by such other person."
To break down some of this legal jargon, NBCLX spoke with Cecelia Klingele, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin's Law School.
"In Wisconsin, you are allowed to use self-defense in a case involving lethal force, so long as you reasonably believe that you, yourself, are in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm and that the force you're using is necessary to protect yourself," Klingele said.
In certain states, defendants aren't allowed to claim self-defense if they caused the incident or if they were acting illegally at the time. That's not the case in Wisconsin.
For this trial in particular, the jury had to answer one question: Had Rittenhouse exhausted every other reasonable means to escape from or otherwise avoid death or great bodily harm?
The jury believed the answer was yes.
"What the jury was doing is not looking at the context of the night as a whole, which is what most ordinary people do. The jury was asked to look at those immediate moments just before the use of force in every single instance and say in those moments, 'Did he believe himself to be in immediate danger of death or serious harm?'" Klingele said. "If the answer was yes, and they didn't see an easy and obvious alternative to the use of force, then in that case they would have to acquit."
That puts the burden on the prosecution to prove that this wasn't a case of self-defense. But it's hard to prove a negative.
As Kami Chavis, former assistant U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., explained it, "When a defendant raises a claim of self-defense, the burden shifts to the prosecution to disprove that. ... So it's just really a matter of whether the jury, looking at the surrounding circumstances, would credit [Rittenhouse's] testimony, and they did."
It's difficult to determine whether the verdict would've gone differently if this happened in a "stand your ground" state, such as Georgia, where the jury are currently deliberating in the trial of the three men accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery while he was out for a run in his neighborhood. Travis McMichael, his father, Gregory McMichael, and neighbor William Bryan are arguing self-defense because they claim Arbery tried to get control of a shotgun one of them was carrying.
Georgia's "stand your ground" law allows people to use deadly force to defend themselves, other people or property if they believe such force is necessary. There is no obligation for anyone to retreat or attempt to flee, like in Wisconsin.
"It's my opinion that we should work to repeal stand your ground statutes primarily because they do not encourage deescalation. In fact, they encourage these situations to escalate," Chavis said. "We'll see more deadly force, more loss of life under these statutes."
The verdict of the Rittenhouse trial is divisive, to say the least. But its potential for setting precedence regarding self-defense is arguably its biggest takeaway.
"[This case] really brings to the fore the difficulty of applying established law of self-defense in a context in which people are increasingly able to openly carry firearms in public places," Klingele said. "So it may well have effects on the way we shape law in the future."