After the trials of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers and Kyle Rittenhouse each delivered pivotal rulings last month, some humanities faculty have incorporated the trials into their coursework on race and the U.S. justice system.
Last month, Rittenhouse – a white 18-year old who shot three white men during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin last August – was acquitted of all charges he faced, while the three white men responsible for the murder of Arbery in February 2020 were convicted on multiple charges of murder. Faculty said they plan to draw connections from the trials to U.S. legal systems through assigned readings and class discussions, incorporating the news into coursework on the U.S. justice system.
Barrett Pitner, a part-time lecturer of media and public affairs, said he is considering including discussions about the media coverage and societal implications of the Arbery murder and Rittenhouse trials’ results in his Introduction to News Writing and Reporting and Journalism and Philosophy courses next semester.
“These college students are pretty young, and these kids are trying to figure out and understand the world in which they live,” he said. “And I think these cases paint a fairly bleak picture of the society in which they live, and there’s a need to be aware of that.”
He said he may use the news coverage on the trials and his own book, “The Crime Without a Name: Ethnocide and the Erasure of Culture in America,” to show how each trial highlights the unconscious treatment of people of color as property in the United States.
Pitner said college students need to be aware of the picture that modern American society represents through the Arbery murder and Rittenhouse trials, where the value of Black lives were debated on the national stage. He said mediating opinions about gun rights and racism can become complicated if the conversation becomes too emotional, but student journalists should learn to separate their subjective opinions from objective reporting.
He added that while students will want to know whose opinion is right and wrong, hearing diverse opinions from students can foster honest classroom discussions about race in the U.S. justice system. He said understanding students’ experiences with race, police and protests will help discussions about these sensitive issues be seen as “normal.”
“Clearly these types of topics will facilitate questions, but if you’re only capable of talking about race or culture in America when someone goes and kills people for no reason, then you’re already at a disadvantage,” he said.
Fran Buntman, an assistant professor of sociology, said she has already discussed the Rittenhouse trial, where jurors were randomly picked out of a hat by Rittenhouse, as an example of unusual jury selection in her class. She said she regularly teaches about current events in her Introduction to Criminal Law course.
“I do encourage students to share opinions, and I think for a lot of students, there’s quite a lot of surprise about what they learn about the way the criminal justice system really works,” Buntman said.
Forrest Maltzman, a professor of political science and a former University provost, said students in his Introduction to American Politics class observed that there is empirical evidence to suggest “stand your ground” claims of self-defense are significantly more successful for white defendants for both cases.
He said using current news events in discussion sections for his politics course has been useful for students to apply the course’s concepts and research to the significance of race in the U.S. justice system.
“Understanding American politics without a discussion of race is really impossible, and these cases illustrate many points that I routinely try to make in the classes I teach,” he said.
Experts in law and public policy said students should analyze state and federal laws to learn about the cases, form an objective opinion and foster a productive conversation about the trials.
Joseph Marguiles, a professor of practice of law and government at Cornell University, said classes should recognize the complexity of the cases and not present them as clear right-and-wrong situations. He said class discussions will help students address and analyze factors in the cases, like their national media coverage and trial proceedings, which make them so complex.
“What I try to do when I bring in discussions of cases like Arbery or anything else is to bring out the complexity,” he said. “I have had success with that approach because you communicate to students that things are not simplistic.”
Christopher Zachar, a Wisconsin-based criminal defense attorney at Zachar Law Firm P.C., said faculty should mention how Rittenhouse’s stable financial background, race and the case’s large media attention influenced its judicial process and Rittenhouse’s alleged “presumption of innocence.” He said students should not assume generalized conclusions about high-profile cases like whether Rittenhouse’s actions were appropriate from a legal or moral standpoint but should analyze the implications on the U.S. legal system going forward.
“Just being able to examine which cases are prosecuted, who’s held accountable and how does the justice system view the killing of people of color as opposed to white people is an important aspect for both the educational system and the legal system to analyze going forward,” he said.
Nicholas Pasion contributed reporting.