By Mark Guarino
Dec. 22, 2020 at 3:29 p.m. CST
A website designed to raise $2 million in defense funds for Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teenager charged with killing two men and injuring a third during street protests in Kenosha, Wis., in August, has prompted concerns among experts who call it a dangerous step toward injecting brand marketing into criminal defense.
The website, which went live late last week, features more than 30 apparel items and accessories emblazoned with the logo “Free Kyle” and a slogan, “Self-defense is a right, not a privilege” — a direct quote from Rittenhouse, his attorneys say. There’s a beanie ($21.99), a hoodie ($39.99) and a T-shirt ($21.99).
By midday Tuesday, the website had collected nearly $60,000 from more than 800 donors, according to a counter on the site.
Rittenhouse is charged with first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree reckless homicide in the killings of two men, Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, on Aug. 25, following protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake. He is also charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide for allegedly shooting and injuring a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz, along with possession of a dangerous weapon while under the age of 18 and two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment.
Since his arrest, Rittenhouse has emerged as a folk hero for the far right. The #FightBack Foundation raised $2 million in bail money that secured his freedom in late November. He is awaiting trial while living with his family in an undisclosed location in the Midwest. Far-right and gun rights groups including the National Association for Gun Rights and American Wolf 689 have raised money for living expenses.
John Pierce, a Los Angeles-based attorney for Rittenhouse, said the website is controlled by the teen’s family and is not connected to any outside organization. Pierce started out on Rittenhouse’s criminal defense team until he stepped down to focus on filing future civil defamation cases involving the family. He is not receiving payment from the funds the website generates, he said.
“We have to do anything and everything to ensure that he gets the best possible defense, and that is expensive,” he said. “We need to raise as much as we can. So we’re taking any and all measures to raise money.”
The website is also designed to personalize Rittenhouse and confirm the self-defense argument his criminal attorneys have outlined during prior court hearings.
An 11-minute video documentary on the site uses video footage from the night to walk viewers through the shootings while portraying the victims as dangerous. It also poses questions about Rosenbaum’s death, saying that “it remains unclear if all four of [his] wounds were caused by Rittenhouse.”
The website includes a statement from Rittenhouse’s mother, Wendy, a video showing her reunion with him and an FAQ section about the case.
Jeff Neslund, a Chicago-based civil rights attorney and a former prosecutor with the Cook County state’s attorney’s office, said the website “is dangerous for prosecutors” attempting to secure a conviction in the pending trial, because it has the potential to taint a jury pool.
“You’re going to have a lot of people who want to be on this jury to help this kid because they have an agenda, so prosecutors will have a tougher time to do their homework to flush those people out,” he said. “But if someone says they never saw the website, what are you going to do? Check their browser history?”
Pierce defended the site, saying “the notion of a fair trial was blown out of the water” when celebrities and political figures used the case to portray Rittenhouse “as a mass murderer and white supremacist.”
“All we are doing is defending his reputation and telling the truth,” Pierce said. “He has a constitutional right to that. There’s nothing wrong or inappropriate to it.”
Neslund said the website represents “a new era” in trial defense, largely because of the influence that social media can have on cases.
“Just the fact that you can promote character evidence that may or may not be admissible [during a trial] on a website — it’s a different world,” he said.
In late November, before Pierce left Rittenhouse’s defense team, Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger asked a judge in the county circuit court to order Pierce to comply with ethics rules that prohibit attorneys from making public statements that could prejudice jurors. Neslund said the website could arguably fall outside those legal parameters, because the statements are coming from the Rittenhouse family, not his attorneys.
The website places the case into a wider context of Second Amendment rights.
“A 17-year-old American citizen is being sacrificed by politicians,” a narrator says at the conclusion of the video. “But it’s not Kyle Rittenhouse they’re after. Their endgame is to strip away the constitutional right of all citizens to defend our communities, our personal property, our lives and the lives of our loved ones. This is the moment when the home of the brave rise to defend the land of the free.”
That language casts Rittenhouse as a relatable figure and “an honorable person who was forced to shoot people in a matter of self-defense,” said Tim Calkins, a brand-marketing expert at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.
“As a result, he represents all the good things about our country, such as taking responsibility and standing up for what is right,” said Calkins, adding that the merchandise makes that branding tangible. “Brands play a very powerful role in defining who we are. That is true whether we wear a Patagonia jacket or a ‘Free Kyle’ T-shirt.”
He said compared the branding of Rittenhouse with that of Colin Kaepernick, the former National Football League player who gained attention after taking a knee during the national anthem. Both now represent complex issues that exist beyond themselves, but Kaepernick achieved his fame organically while Rittenhouse’s branding is deliberate, Calkins said.
“I’m not sure this is a high-water mark in the world of branding,” he added. “Here we have people using tools of brand-building to build the brand of an accused criminal and that is taking us places that are very different.”