Kyle Rittenhouse Deserves the Kind of Mercy My Son Did Not Receive

To a great many people in this country, my son deserves to die in prison. To another great many, Kyle Rittenhouse deserves the same fate. Neither outcome is just.

A person looking out of jail cell
Carlos Javier Ortiz / Redux

About the author: Elder G. Yusef Qualls is a retired pastor, community leader, and criminal-justice advocate who provides mentorship for people who went to prison as children.

Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old who was charged with shooting and killing two people during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, is just a year older than my son was when he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. To a great many people in this country, my son deserves to die in prison. To another great many, Rittenhouse deserves the same fate. Neither outcome is just.

What Rittenhouse is accused of doing is abhorrent. While thousands rose up to protest police violence in the aftermath of the shooting of Jacob Blake, Rittenhouse’s response was to arm himself and travel to a city not his own, out of a professed desire to defend businesses and private property. As protesters and counterprotesters clashed, eyewitness accounts and video footage suggest that he shot one man, killing him, and when protesters ran after him, he shot two others, killing one.

His supporters, who say he is a patriot and acted in self-defense, have sent hundreds of thousands of dollars to his legal fund. Rittenhouse is currently being held in a juvenile-detention center in Illinois, and last week, his lawyers argued that having him stand trial in Wisconsin would amount to turning him “over to the mob.”

Under Wisconsin law, Rittenhouse can be charged as an adult, and if convicted, could face a life sentence without parole. Despite the anger I have toward him and his supporters, I feel strongly that Rittenhouse should have the kind of mercy that my son—and so many other predominantly Black and brown children—did not receive. He is too young for such a harsh punishment.

My son Yusef was only 16 when, drunk and high, he drove with two men to a house in Detroit where one murdered two women. Afterward, Yusef’s mother drove him to the police station to tell officers what had happened. He was never free again. He was not the shooter, but he was charged as an accomplice, with two counts of premeditated murder, among other charges. After the trial, the judge gave him the mandatory sentence for that crime in the state of Michigan: life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Yusef is now 41 years old. While incarcerated, he has lost his mother, his brother, and last month, his sister. His good friend—another juvenile lifer who was weeks from his freedom—recently died of COVID-19. Even though Yusef has grown up behind bars, he is an artist, a mentor, a leader, a facilitator, and a friend to many.

American law is already a bit more merciful now than when Yusef was convicted. In 2012, in Miller v. Alabama, the Supreme Court prohibited mandatory life sentences without parole for juveniles convicted of any offense, including homicide. In 2016, the Supreme Court determined that the ruling in Miller should apply retroactively. Those decisions stemmed from scientific data and testimony showing that the minds of adolescents are not fully developed until they reach their mid-20s. As such, juvenile mandatory life without parole constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Four years have passed, and nearly 1,000 juvenile lifers are still waiting to have their sentences reviewed. My son is one of them. When the hearing does happen, his lawyers will ask the judge to reduce his sentence to time served.

When I watched the video of Rittenhouse playing vigilante in the streets of Kenosha, I saw his youth—his demeanor that was impulsive, irrational, dangerous, stupid. I also saw more than just youth. Rittenhouse and my son are a product of a country built on fear, violence, and hypocrisy. Yusef was in that car 25 years ago because of his youth and impulsive desire to fit in, but also because of poverty, shame, isolation, and the ever-present violence in our Detroit neighborhood. Rittenhouse was in Kenosha with an assault rifle because of youthful impulsivity, but also because of a country that has told him again and again that Black people in the streets are dangerous, even if they’re protesting racism.

Yusef Qualls and Elder Qualls (Courtesy of Elder Qualls)

What kind of country has made killers of so many young people? The law doesn’t answer that question or attempt to address the underlying factors that brought our kids to this point.

If I am advocating to free my son for a crime he committed when he was only 16, then I must also advocate for Rittenhouse. He does not deserve to be tried as an adult or receive a life sentence without the chance of parole. He must be held accountable, but the courts need to recognize that he is, in fact, a child, and he should not die in prison for decisions he made as one. Years from now, he may become someone unrecognizable from his 17-year-old self. And like every other person sentenced as a child, he should be given the chance to redeem himself.

I don’t make this decision easily. I understand well how one—driven by vengeance—would justify seeking the maximum punishment for a person who is accused of taking human life. I understand because I once felt the same way.

In addition to being the father of a son in prison, I am also the father of a murdered son. My eldest was in his 30s when he was shot during a botched ATM robbery. He was the random victim of an assailant who left home armed and ready to do harm. Enduring his untimely death—and then having to stare into the face of his dazed, apathetic assailant in court—was immeasurably painful, and brought me to the very edge of my faith. But the experience was also instrumental to my advocacy today. I knew I could not stand on behalf of my youngest son without forgiving and advocating for those people, especially young people, entangled in this faulty system. My trauma was not healed by caging yet another person. It only made me feel worse.

We are, so many of us, victim and victimizer. Those most harmed are so often those who commit harms against others. It is difficult to find mercy and have the emotional flexibility to reckon with those truths.

I understand that precedent is very much a part of legal practice, and as such, I hope a precedent is established in Rittenhouse’s upcoming trial that would extend to others—especially those from Black, brown, poor communities, whom the legal system treats with particular harshness and then casts away and forgets. I ask for justice for the people who lost their life, as I asked for justice for my eldest son. For my youngest, and for Rittenhouse, I also ask for mercy. I know that both justice and mercy can coexist. I just hope the courts recognize that too.