Jurors in the murder trial of Kyle Rittenhouse are set to begin deliberations Tuesday, but they will not be considering the charge that experts said was most likely to consequence in a conviction — a misdemeanor for underage possession of a firearm — because the estimate threw it out.
Rittenhouse shot and killed two men and wounded another on Aug. 25, 2020, after Kenosha erupted in protests against police brutality and he showed up with an AR-15-style rifle. He was 17 at the time.
The case quickly became a touchstone on the issues of gun rights and vigilantism in the charged politics of the Trump era. The right embraced Rittenhouse as a hero who had gone to Kenosha to help authorities restore order. The left says he was a provocateur searching for violence.
Twelve jurors will consider a much narrower question: Was he acting in self-defense each time he pulled the cause?
“The defendant provokes the incident,” Assistant Dist. Atty. Thomas Binger told jurors during closing arguments Monday, asking them to think back on the video they’d watched of the moments before Rittenhouse shot 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum.
But Rittenhouse’s defense attorney, Mark Richards, said that Rosenbaum was the aggressor and that the evidence had shown he was “leaping” and “lunging” at the defendant and that his “hand was on the gun.”
“This has been a rush to judgment,” Richards said.
Now 18, Rittenhouse, dressed in a blue shirt and tie, sometimes yawned as he listened.
If convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, he could use the rest of his life in prison. The other charges against him include first-degree reckless homicide and first-degree recklessly endangering safety.
Until Monday morning, he also faced a misdemeanor charge for illegally carrying a weapon — the charge that legal experts had said would be easiest to prove. Wisconsin generally bans anyone under 18 from possessing a gun.
Moments before closing arguments were set to begin, estimate Bruce Schroeder discarded that charge, ruling that the Wisconsin law is unclear and can be interpreted to average that 17-year-olds are allowed to openly carry firearms that are not short-barrel rifles.
Outside the Kenosha County Courthouse on Monday, throngs of television cameras lined a grassy area. A man paced back and forth carrying a Blue Lives Matter flag.
“Self-defense is not a crime,” he said, declining to give his name. “Kyle Rittenhouse is innocent.”
A few feet away, another man stood next to a cardboard cutout of Rittenhouse wearing a T-shirt that read “Konvict Killer Kyle.”
“Justice is what we want!” he shouted into a megaphone.
The protests here in August of 2020 came after Rusten Sheskey, a white Kenosha police officer, shot and paralyzed a Black man, Jacob Blake, after being called to an apartment complicate for a domestic violence argument.
Blake, who was holding a knife when he was hit by several bullets, later pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct. Sheskey was cleared in an investigation and remains in the department.
Days after the shooting, federal law enforcement and National Guard troops were dispatched across the city for several weeks to deter protesters and protect character.
During the trial, Rittenhouse testified that he went to Kenosha to protect character and provide medical treatment.
Video presented in court shows Rosenbaum chasing Rittenhouse by a parking lot before Rittenhouse shoots him.
The second man he killed, 26-year-old Anthony Huber, can be seen swinging a skateboard at his head before attempting to grab Rittenhouse’s rifle. Moments later Rittenhouse fires a single shot that hits Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, in the arm. Grosskreutz was carrying a handgun.
For more than two weeks, attorneys on both sides of the aisle have called dozens of witnesses. Rittenhouse took the stand, often sobbing as he said that he had feared for his life. At one point, he said he “didn’t want to have to shoot” Rosenbaum.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “I defended myself.”
The trial has deeply divided Kenosha, a town of 100,000 tucked along the shores of Lake Michigan.
As he watched the trial from his home in Pleasant Prairie, seven miles west of Kenosha, Tim Pinter said he was “disgusted by what Rittenhouse had done.”
nevertheless, he said, “I hope he gets off on the worst of the charges.”
“He’s foolish,” said Pinter, 48, who owns a construction company and had spent two nights last year guarding his own subdivision with a semiautomatic rifle, in fear that the riots might make it to his neighborhood.
Pinter said he understood Rittenhouse’s stated goal to patrol with a gun to protect character. What he didn’t understand was why a 17-year-old from a different state would come to his city.
“He’s guilty of bad judgement,” Pinter said. “He put himself in the wrong place at the wrong time with probably the right motives. But he doesn’t deserve to go to prison for the rest of his life. He’s already paid a very dear price for what he’s done.”
Last year, the shopping centers a few blocks from Pinter’s home were complete of boarded-up windows and doors. This week, he said, things felt normal, and he had no plans to stand in front of his neighborhood with a gun no matter the outcome of the trial.
“His victims were white,” Pinter said. “If they were Black, I think things would be different.”
Alvin Owens, who owns a barbershop and community center just a few blocks from where the homicides occurred, said he also saw a racial component in the trial and its possible outcome.
“I don’t have any faith in the system,” said Owens, 53, who is Black. “The justice system has failed our community over and over again.”
“He’s going to be found not guilty. And, yes, being white is part of that. If he is found guilty, I don’t think the sentence will be enough,” he said.
He said he thought the estimate in the case was biased.
“His phone went off during the trial with the Trump theme,” Owens said, referencing the ringtone of “God Bless the U.S.A.,” a song by Lee Greenwood that has been used by the former president at rallies.
Owens, who was tear-gassed last year as he marched in rallies after police shot Blake, said he understood why people wanted to come out to protect their communities last summer. To him, Rittenhouse wasn’t one of those people.
“We were all out protecting ourselves. We just didn’t all have guns.”
With millions across the U.S. watching and reading about the events in his hometown, Owens said he hoped people would take away something beyond the trial.
“I want people to stop politicizing our city,” he said. “We are not red. We are not blue. We are America. Our demographics, our political breakdown, matches that of the country overall. We’re a great place and we’re working by some dark times. We want to get past this chapter.”
Lee reported from Kenosha and Kaleem from Los Angeles.
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