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Three current trials are putting a spotlight on race and justice

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Three different cases in three courtrooms in three states have sparked some similar conversations about justice and injustice in America. The Kyle Rittenhouse trial ended Friday with his acquittal. The white 18-year-old had been charged with homicide after killing two white men and wounding a third in the aftermath of protests over the police shooting of a Black man in Kenosha, Wis. In Georgia, defense attorneys for three white men charged with murdering a Black jogger have rested their case. And in Charlottesville, Va., a jury is deliberating a case against white nationalist organizers of the 2017 Unite the Right rally. Paul Butler is a professor of law at Georgetown University and joins us now. Welcome.

PAUL BUTLER: Hey, Leila. It's great to be here.

FADEL: So let's start in Kenosha. Kyle Rittenhouse had become a hero for some on the right. He's been championed by former President Trump. A Fox film crew was embedded with him during the trial. What message does his acquittal send?

BUTLER: The verdict does not mean that the jurors bought the Boy Scout image of Rittenhouse that the defense presented. It only means that they had reasonable doubt that Rittenhouse was guilty. At the same time, I can't imagine that residents of Kenosha are happy about a 17-year-old bringing a semiassault rifle to patrol the streets.

FADEL: Jurors were looking at a narrow set of laws on questions of gun and self-defense laws, but many observers also saw in the case a white defendant being given a whole lot of leeway for his deadly behavior. Is that what you saw?

BUTLER: The prosecutors had a tough case. Some of their own witnesses ended up supporting the defense. There were concerns through the trial that the judge tipped the scales of justice in favor of Mr. Rittenhouse and that an African American who shot three people at a protest rally wouldn't have been allowed to go home that night like Mr. Rittenhouse was. And he might not have had the benefit of a $2 million legal defense fund. So I think there are concerns about equal justice under the law, even though all of the principals were white.

FADEL: Now, self-defense is also the defense in the case of the killing of Ahmaud Arbery for the three white men who chased him down in their trucks and shot him. Do you see similar dynamics at play in Brunswick, Ga.?

BUTLER: I had a hard time listening to the testimony of Travis McMichael, who was the shooter. The way he described three white men chasing Mr. Arbery reminded me of slave catchers. That's where the Georgia citizen arrest law comes from. What the trial of the killers of Mr. Arbery and the Rittenhouse trial have in common is white men armed and taking the law in their own hands.

FADEL: I think for a lot of people, as they watch these cases, they expect the courts to come out with what they see as justice. But can courts be a viable tool to try and fix systemic issues in the United States?

BUTLER: Criminal cases are not about social change, but civil trials, like the trial in Charlottesville, can be more ambitious. The goal is bankrupting white supremacy organizations and deterring people from using violence. One important function, though, that trials have is their storytelling, a way of mediating trauma.

FADEL: There's been a lot of focus on the jury selection in these cases. I understand that Wisconsin jury - only one member of each jury was not white. And in the Virginia case, prospective jurors were asked about their feelings on white nationalism, on the Black Lives Matter movement. What do these jury selections tell us about what's happening behind the scenes in the justice system?

BUTLER: When you don't have a lot of information about potential jurors, even though you're not supposed to, race is often viewed by lawyers as a sign of how they might come out in the case. And so if we look at the trial in Georgia, the judge found that there had been intentional discrimination against prospective Black jurors, but he said that there was nothing that he can do about it. The Supreme Court has said that in a case that implicates race, no one has a right to have a juror of any particular race. But it's important that juries be diverse, the court says, because that provides community confidence. And if the defendants are found not guilty in a case that looks to a lot of folks like a modern-day lynching of a Black man, the composition of the jury may be blamed.

FADEL: A jury of your peers. I mean, these questions seem to try to weed out people who might have ideas of anti-racism or grew up with a lived Black experience.

BUTLER: In the era of Black Lives Matter, almost everybody has thought about the criminal legal system and asked whether it treats everybody fairly. You wouldn't want jurors who hadn't engaged in these questions because it would mean that they're not quite with it. And sometimes, in cases involving race, it's almost as though the white perspective is seen as neutral. But if you have concerns about the criminal legal system, even if those concerns are evidence-based, sometimes, that's used to suggest bias. And that disproportionately eliminates people of color from jury pool.

FADEL: Paul Butler is a professor of law at Georgetown University. Thank you so much for being with us.

BUTLER: It's always a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.