Opposition to the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict—which saw a jury accept the teen's self-defense claim after he shot two men and wounded another during a night of civil unrest—primarily splintered along two lines. In one, the jury supposedly got it wrong. In the other, even if the jury technically got it right, we allegedly need to pass new laws to prevent such a verdict from ever coming down again.
The latter largely reflects a well-intentioned attempt to narrow the racial and class disparities in the judicial system. But another recent verdict out of Florida, handed down the same day as Rittenhouse's, is a case study in why more punitive measures would hurt the very people who already face disproportionately negative outcomes.
Andrew Coffee IV was charged with the attempted murder of a law enforcement officer and the felony murder of Coffee's girlfriend, Alteria Woods. Deputies with the Indian River County Sheriff's Office shot Woods 10 times during a drug raid in 2017 targeting Coffee's father. The younger Coffee allegedly opened fire on deputies when they burst into his room that evening, having been awoken by the commotion and thinking the cops were an intruder. Deputies fired back, killing Woods.
Under the felony murder rule, the government may charge someone with killing someone he didn't actually kill if it's somehow connected to a tangential offense. Had Coffee not tried to defend himself that evening, the government argued, the officers would never have shot at them in return. Therefore, Coffee was supposedly guilty of murdering his partner.
The jury didn't buy it, acquitting Coffee on both charges. "I was trying to protect me and Alteria and I thought I was doing that," said Coffee, "but I feel I didn't protect her. I can't sleep with that….They killed her."
Coffee's case is far more egregious than Rittenhouse's: Agents of the state broke into his room, killed his girlfriend, admitted that they killed her, and still tried to lock him up for it. And while Rittenhouse gets to walk free, Coffee still faces 30 years in prison, because the jury found him guilty of possession of a firearm by a convicted felon—a firearm he used in self-defense when officers burst into his home for a drug raid that had nothing to do with him.
"The state will be seeking that maximum 30 years upon him," Assistant State Attorney Chris Taylor said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the weapons charge in Rittenhouse's case was thrown out by the court after it became clear the prosecutors misconstrued the statute. Though falsehoods and misunderstandings about that development still abound, it is indeed legal for a 17-year-old in Wisconsin to be in possession of a firearm so long as it is not short-barreled. Choruses for harsher laws ironically came from liberals who otherwise champion criminal justice reform.
But the fact that our system is unfair in its punitiveness is not a convincing reason to make it even more punitive. A system that seeks fairness by punishing everyone more is after the wrong kind of equality. And if Coffee's case is any indication, more restrictive laws and punishments will backfire on the defendants some might deem more sympathetic.