By Mark Guarino, Kim Bellware and Mark Berman
November 1, 2021|Updated November 1, 2021 at 9:15 p.m. EDT
KENOSHA, Wis. — A jury was selected Monday evening in Kyle Rittenhouse’s homicide trial here, paving the way for opening statements to begin in the volatile case.
They were seated at the end of a marathon day after the judge dismissed a string of potential jurors who said their minds were firmly made up, underscoring the difficulties in seating an impartial jury in such a polarizing, high-profile case. Rittenhouse, 18, is charged with killing two people and wounding a third amid the chaotic unrest that erupted in Kenosha after a police shooting last year.
The case instantly became a flash point in a fiercely divided country, with Rittenhouse hailed by supporters as a hero who defended himself and assailed by opponents as a violent vigilante. Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty to all counts, and his attorneys are expected to argue that he acted in self-defense.
As trial proceedings got underway Monday with jury selection, the case’s notoriety was an unmissable backdrop. Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder acknowledged that “this case has enjoyed a lot of publicity,” asking for a show of hands from jurors who had not read or heard about the case. No hands went up.
The selected jury includes nine men and 11 women, and all appear to be White except for one man. Schroeder had said Monday morning that there were about 150 potential jurors, and the goal was to select 20 for the proceedings.
The trial could take about two weeks, Schroeder said, and by its end, 12 jurors will decide the case and the rest will be released. The jury could be sequestered, Schroeder said, but he described that as extremely unlikely.
There was palpable relief in the courtroom at the end of the jury selection process, which lasted more than 8 and a half hours.
“You’re in the command seat,” Schroeder told the jurors. “You’re going to know more about this case than anyone in the world.”
The trial centers on shootings that took place in August 2020, when Kenosha had erupted after Rusten Sheskey, a White police officer, shot Jacob Blake, a Black 29-year-old man, in the back. The shooting quickly went viral and spurred peaceful protests during the day and bursts of property damage and destruction at night. Months later, Michael Graveley, the Kenosha County district attorney, declined to charge Sheskey, saying Blake had resisted police and was armed with a knife.
With Kenosha aflame after the shooting, a wave of armed civilians headed into Kenosha, saying they planned to guard businesses.Rittenhouse, then 17, was among them, traveling to the city from his home in Antioch, Ill., about 20 miles away. During confrontations on the city’s frantic streets that will be dissected in court, he shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26. He also injured Gaige Grosskreutz, also 26 at the time.
Experts said that while the context surrounding the case is political and charged, the legal issues involved are not. The trial, they said, will come down to whether jurors accept Rittenhouse’s argument that he fired in self-defense.
Schroeder told jurors that if selected, they will need to focus only on what is presented during the trial, forgetting anything they previously read about the shootings.
“You’re going to hear the exact evidence you need to decide the case,” Schroeder said.
But when he asked jurors if they could do that, some bluntly said it was impossible. A woman who watched a live stream amid the unrest said she could not distance herself from it. Another said they were unable to set aside prior opinions. Each was dismissed.
Another juror offered that he had a strong perspective on the Second Amendment and had been posting regularly online about it, before Schroeder stopped him and said: “This is not a political trial.” The juror said he felt biased and could not be fair, so he was dismissed, too.
A potential juror appeared agitated while speaking and addressed Rittenhouse in her remarks.
“Life’s about choices and consequences,” said the woman, who was wearing a blue top, nodding toward Rittenhouse as she spoke. “Why didn’t he stay in his own city?”
She was quickly dismissed.
More than two dozen potential jurors had been dismissed by Monday afternoon, most of them people who said their opinions could not be budged. Others were released after saying they knew people on the witness lists or no longer lived in Kenosha. One man had a planned trip to Poland later in the week, while a woman expressed religious objections, citing the prohibition “Thou shalt not kill.”
Outside the courtroom, news crews far outnumbered demonstrators. Streets near the courthouse were cordoned off, and a small crowd gathered on the chilly morning.
Jacob Blake’s uncle, Justin Blake, stood holding the Pan-African flag amid a small scrum of people and pledged to show up for each day of the trial. He hoped to show support for the families of Rosenbaum and Huber.
“We’re here for Anthony and Jojo,” he said, using Rosenbaum’s nickname. “If we can help their families get justice, maybe they can sleep tonight.”
Ron Brown, 34, a Kenosha resident, arrived with several friends about an hour after the trial began. Calling himself a local activist, Brown expressed concern with several rulings Schroeder had made — including that the people who were shot cannot be called “victims.”
Brown said he hoped the trial would spotlight what he called a record of inequity in the county court system, saying it was “such a small county, no one pays attention.”
“That’s probably why a lot of people didn’t come,” he added of the low turnout by local residents. Most, he said, are still scarred by the unrest from last year or feel the city’s fate and its long-standing issues are divorced from Rittenhouse’s fate.
The mood was subdued inside the courtroom. Rittenhouse entered with his legal team, wearing a gray suit and light pink tie. His mother and sister both took seats in the back row, with Kenosha Sgt. Bill Beth standing behind them.
Masks were not required, and most of the people in court — including Schroeder, Rittenhouse and the attorneys on both sides — were not wearing them.
Prosecution and defense attorneys also peppered jurors with questions, asking them things such as whether they had participated in the August 2020 unrest, how it impacted them and whether they were familiar with guns.
Other jurors expressed nervousness about what might happen if they were selected. One woman, who lives near Antioch, said she feared what jurors would encounter walking out when the trial ends each day. Another woman said she wanted to serve on a jury, just not this jury, because no matter what they decide, people will be angry at them. She was selected for the jury.
Speaking to the first woman, Schroeder said there would be “measures … taken with the jury,” apparently alluding to security precautions. He declined to elaborate on them, saying they would be less effective if he talked about it.