- Wednesday’s guilty verdicts in the Ahmaud Arbery case came on the heels of Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal last week.
- While the high-profile cases share some similarities, legal experts warned against comparing the two.
- Everything from state laws, to prosecutorial luck, played a role in the trials’ differing outcomes.
In less than one week, a pair of verdicts stemming from two high-profile legal cases — the Kyle Rittenhouse and Ahmaud Arbery trials — have largely been lumped together in the public discourse; packaged as twin commentary on America’s deep political and racial polarization.
But despite some seeming surface-level similarities between the two, the trials had opposite outcomes: Kyle Rittenhouse walked free after a Wisconsin jury found him not guilty on five counts, including homicide charges, while three Georgia men now face potential life sentences after being convicted of the murder of Ahmaud Arbery.
While both cases dealt with fatal shootings and both trials saw defendants take the stand arguing self-defense, legal experts cautioned against comparing the two, highlighting the significant differences surrounding the inciting incidents and resulting criminal trials that likely led to the conflicting outcomes.
Two former federal prosecutors told Insider that everything from state laws to prosecutorial luck played a role in those differences.
The primary reason to avoid comparing the Kyle Rittenhouse and Ahmaud Arbery verdicts, according to experts?
They’re predicated on completely dissimilar cases.
“They’re not similar,” said Robert A. Sanders, a former federal prosecutor and chair of the national security department at the University of New Haven.
Rittenhouse, 18, fatally shot two men and injured a third during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020, following the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake. The teenager, then 17, testified that he went downtown amid the unrest in order to guard a local car dealership, at the behest of the business’s owners, and got caught up in the chaos.
Throughout his trial, Rittenhouse and his legal team argued the teenager acted in self-defense, shooting three individuals with his AR-15 in order to protect his own life amid the growing tension.
“Kyle Rittenhouse was an individual who went to chaos, initiated additional chaos, and then killed people as part of the chaos,” Sanders said.
Meanwhile, the circumstances surrounding Arbery’s 2020 murder are vastly different.
Travis McMichael, 35, his father Gregory McMichael, 65, and neighbor William “Roddie” Bryan, 52, all white, were convicted of killing Arbery, a Black man who was jogging, after they followed through a Georgia neighborhood in a pick-up truck in February 2020. Graphic video of the incident was captured by Bryan on a cellphone video that was later published by a local radio station.
The men said Arbery caught their attention because he resembled a man accused of a string of burglaries in the area. But police records show only one reported burglary in the neighborhood in the two months prior to Arbery’s death, which involved a report of a stolen gun from a truck outside Travis McMichael’s home.
Travis McMichael, who fired the fatal shot, said he feared for his life and acted in self-defense, but the primarily white Georgia jury was unconvinced.
The defendants in the two cases also faced a slate of disparate charges from the start
Rittenhouse, who was not charged with murder, faced charges of first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree intentional homicide, and attempted first-degree intentional homicide for fatally shooting two men and injuring a third. He was also charged with reckless endangerment of two additional men.
The jury acquitted Rittenhouse on all five counts.
The McMichaels and Bryan, however, faced nine counts related to Arbery’s murder. All three faced one count of malice murder, four counts of felony murder, two counts of aggravated assault, one count of false imprisonment, and one count of criminal attempts to commit false imprisonment.
Travis McMichael was found guilty of all nine charges, while his father was found guilty of all but the malice murder charge. Bryan was convicted of six of the nine charges but was found not guilty of malice murder, one count of felony murder, and one count of aggravated assault.
Each state’s legislature is tasked with writing that state’s laws, Sanders said
This inevitably leads to varied rights and rules depending on the jurisdiction.
“The Wisconsin legislature saw fit to write laws that allow you to walk the street with a loaded AR-15,” Sanders said. In several other states, just having that weapon and its ammo in the same place at the same time could be considered a crime.
So, while Rittenhouse was too young to purchase his gun himself, exemptions within Wisconsin law meant his possession of the weapon on August 25, 2020, was not technically illegal.
Meanwhile, the defendants in Arbery’s case argued they were attempting to perform a legal citizen’s arrest on the jogger when they attacked him — a right guaranteed to individuals under Georgia law.
Each state also has its own unique definition for crimes like murder, malice murder, homicide, and reckless endangerment, further adding complexity to each specific case.
Juror sympathy for the defendants — and their victims
“Travis and Gregory were far less sympathetic than a 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse,” said Neama Rahmani, a former federal prosecutor and president of West Coast Trial Lawyers. “Arguably, the jury thought he was there to help people.”
On the stand, Rittenhouse broke down in sobs while describing his fear that August night. The teenager’s tears highlighted his youth and may have played to his favor in a way that Travis McMichael’s careful testimony did not, legal experts said.
The varied sympathy levels demanded by the defendants likely played a substantial role in Rittenhouse’s acquittal compared to the McMichaels’ and Bryan’s convictions.
But so too, did the sympathy levels surrounding the respective victims.
“Ahmaud Arbery was jogging, unarmed, while Black,” Rahmani said. “There is no evidence he stole anything.”
The men Rittenhouse shot, meanwhile, presented more complicated considerations for a jury, particularly Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, who was seen in videos setting fires, tipping over a Porta-Potty, and even shouting the N-word during the Kenosha unrest.
Gaige Grosskreutz, a then-27-year-old EMT who survived being shot by Rittenhouse, testified during the trial that he had pointed a gun at the teenager while attempting to disarm him.
The final straw in securing a preferred outcome? A little bit of luck, and a lot of legal talent
“The prosecutors in Wisconsin had lesser evidence and they had witnesses that flipped on them on the stand,” Sanders said.
Prosecutors in the Rittenhouse trial presented more than 20 witnesses, many of whom explicitly stated or suggested that the teenager had indeed acted in self-defense, offering support for the defense’s case.
“The difference in Georgia was when they put people on the stand, what they expected them to do, they did,” Sanders said.
“When those people get cross-examined, they expect them to hold to their stories and continue being a prosecution witness,” he added.
When Rittenhouse took the stand, his cross-examination was fairly straightforward and reliant on his previous statements, to which he held true, further cementing his reliability in the jury’s eyes. But in the Arbery case, Travis McMichael’s testimony likely did the opposite, according to Sanders.
“The prosecutor did a fantastic job of walking him down the road of his statements and pushing him every time he tried to walk it in a different direction,” he said.