Kyle Rittenhouse has been acquitted of all charges after pleading self-defence in the deadly Kenosha, Wis., shootings that became a flashpoint in the nation’s debate over guns, vigilantism and racial injustice.
The jury came back with its verdict after close to three and a half days of deliberation.
Rittenhouse, 18, could have faced life in prison if found guilty of the most serious charge against him.
He was charged with homicide, attempted homicide and recklessly endangering safety for killing two men and wounding a third with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle.
The shootings took place during a night of protests over police violence against Black people in the tumultuous summer of 2020. Rittenhouse is white, as were those he shot. The jury appeared to be overwhelmingly white.
Prosecutors had also asked Judge Bruce Schroeder to let the jury consider several lesser charges if they acquitted him on the original counts, a request that was accepted.
In his instructions, the judge said that to accept Rittenhouse’s claim of self-defence, the jury needed to find that he believed there was an unlawful threat to him and that the amount of force he used was reasonable and necessary.
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers had said before the verdict that 500 National Guard members would be prepared for duty in Kenosha if local law enforcement requested them in the event of any unrest after the verdict.
What was not in dispute during the two-week trial is that Rittenhouse, 17 at the time, fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and seriously wounded Gaige Grosskreutz on Aug. 25, 2020, in Kenosha, Wis.
Rittenhouse, who had ties to Kenosha but resided over state lines in Antioch, Ill., was among a number of armed individuals who descended upon the city that evening after two nights of tumultuous protests had led to the destruction of several properties and vehicles.
Video figured prominently at trial
The trial featured significant video footage, as several individuals on the ground in Kenosha had recorded the events of that night on their devices, capturing some of Rittenhouse’s movements and the shootings of Huber and Grosskreutz.
Some of the incidents were live-streamed to social media platforms that very night, leading to almost instantaneous but polarized reaction and commentary. Supporters have hailed Rittenhouse as a hero who took a stand against lawlessness; others have branded him a vigilante with no business being on the scene that night as state and city officials had enacted a curfew and roadblocks to try and prevent hostilities.
Both President Joe Biden and his predecessor Donald Trump weighed in on the Kenosha shootings, with Schroeder instructing the jury to ignore those comments in their deliberations.
In his closing argument, district attorney Thomas Binger focused on the victims’ right to self-defence as well as the multiple rounds Rittenhouse fired at Rosenbaum. He argued that the behaviour of others on the street after that deadly encounter transpired shortly before midnight suggested the crowd believed Rittenhouse was an active shooter.
“I think we can also agree that we shouldn’t have 17-year-olds running around our streets with AR-15s, because this is exactly what happens,” said Binger.
Defence attorney Mark Richards portrayed Rittenhouse as a concerned citizen with ties to Kenosha — he worked in the city and his father resided there — who did not fire his weapon until provoked or threatened by those he shot, acting in self-defence each time he fired, under state law.
The defence elicited testimony to indicate that Grosskreutz had a Glock pistol in his hand, Huber had struck Rittenhouse with a heavy skateboard and that Rosenbaum had been acting erratically and had verbally threatened several individuals that night.
Weapon, curfew charges dropped
Rittenhouse used an AR-15-style rifle that had been purchased by a friend and stored at that friend’s Kenosha residence. That friend, Dominick Black, faces a criminal case for the so-called straw purchase, but Rittenhouse saw a charge of being in illegal possession of a firearm dropped near the end of trial.
The decision to drop that charge owed to what appeared to be a loophole in state law. Minors cannot possess a short-barrelled rifle, but that definition does not apply to an AR-15.
A charge Rittenhouse faced for violating the curfew was dropped in the first week of the trial.
Schroeder rejected a bid by prosecutors to introduce to the jury a brief video taken 15 days before the fatal shootings. In the video, Rittenhouse is heard watching some men exit a pharmacy and commenting that he wished he had his rifle so he could shoot them, because he thought they were shoplifters.
WATCH | Rittenhouse explains his actions on Aug. 25, 2020:
After the prosecution rested its case, the defence chose to call Rittenhouse to testify, which was not required by law.
The teen became emotional in his first hour on the stand, gasping for air as he described the interaction with Rosenbaum.
After a short break, Rittenhouse was largely composed for the rest of his time on the stand, including during cross-examination by prosecutors, in which they questioned the sincerity of his reasons for being in Kenosha that night, which included acting as a volunteer medic and guarding a business he had no connection to.
The days and nights of protest that arose in Kenosha occurred after a white police officer shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, on a domestic disturbance call. State and federal prosecutors ultimately declined to file criminal charges against the officer over the interaction.
The shooting came three months after George Floyd died while being pinned to the ground by a white Minnesota police officer, precipitating a wave of demonstrations in dozens of U.S. cities in which protesters demonstrated against racial injustice and police use of deadly force.