Kyle Rittenhouse acquitted on all counts in polarizing Kenosha homicide trial

By Mark Guarino, Kim Bellware and Mark Berman

November 19, 2021 at 7:55 p.m. EST

KENOSHA, Wis. — A jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse on all counts Friday, more than a year after the teenager fatally shot two people and wounded a third amid unrest over a police shooting in Kenosha, a case that set off searing national debates over guns, race, vigilantism and self-defense.

Jurors deliberated for nearly three and a half days before delivering their verdict in a courtroom just blocks from where Rittenhouse, then 17, opened fire on Aug. 25, 2020. He traveled to Kenosha, joining a mass of armed civilians that took to the city’s streets as it was shaken by turmoil after a White police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man.

Rittenhouse began breaking down as he listened to the words “not guilty” read for each of the five charges against him, including homicide, and emotionally slumped over the defense table as they finished. The teenager then embraced Corey Chirafisi, one of his attorneys, and drank from a water bottle, his hand trembling. He quickly left the courtroom.

Rittenhouse appeared in Kenosha’s streets with an AR-15-style rifle in August 2020 saying he wanted to help protect businesses amid the unrest. But during brief confrontations, Rittenhouse shot and killed 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum and 26-year-old Anthony Huber. He also shot and injured Gaige Grosskreutz, then 26. Rittenhouse, who pleaded not guilty, faced a potential life sentence if convicted.

The teenager, now 18, argued he only fired in self-defense, while prosecutors depicted him as a violent aggressor who instigated and escalated the situation. Despite the intense arguments the case sparked on gun rights, racial justice and other fraught issues, experts said the trial instead hung on the much more narrow topic of Rittenhouse’s self-defense claims.

The jury’s extended deliberations this week had caused some legal observers to anticipate a deadlock or a split verdict. But when jurors marched back into the courtroom early Friday afternoon, they were unanimous on all counts. They had deliberated since Tuesday morning, and some appeared fatigued as the verdicts were read.

“The charges against the defendant on all counts are dismissed with prejudice,” Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder said after the verdict was read.

While Rittenhouse and the three men he shot were White, the shootings took place amid last year’s racial-justice demonstrations and the far-right backlash to nationwide protests, creating a lens through which many viewed the case. The teenager was hailed on Fox News as someone who “did the right thing,” stepping in when the government failed to protect businesses from the racial unrest. On MSNBC, he was called a “vigilante” whose actions were “white privilege on steroids.”

“So many people look at this case and they see what they want to see,” Thomas Binger, one of the prosecutors, told jurors during closing arguments. “They have a preconceived notion, and they tailor the facts to fit whatever they believe.”

The case’s divisive portrayal continued Friday, with far-right actors and extremists cheering the verdict. Rittenhouse’s supporters near the courthouse erupted in jubilation after the jury’s decision was announced, and some hailed it as a repudiation of the Black Lives Matter movement. Racial justice activists decried the outcome, which the American Civil Liberties Union said stemmed “from the deep roots of white supremacy in our society’s institutions.”

Speaking outside the courthouse, Justin Blake, Jacob Blake’s uncle, denounced the verdict.

“I don’t know how they came to the final conclusion that he’s innocent, but this is why African Americans say the whole damn system is guilty,” Blake said. “This must end.”

Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D), who last week authorized about 500 National Guard troops to position near Kenosha in case of potential unrest, called for calm on Friday afternoon.

“This case and the resulting national spotlight on the Kenosha community and our state have undoubtedly reopened wounds that have not yet fully healed,” Evers said in a statement. He asked anyone planning to gather to do so “safely and peacefully.”

In Washington, President Biden said in a statement that while the verdict “will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken.”

Republican lawmakers weighed in supporting Rittenhouse, with some saying they wanted to offer him congressional internships. Former president Donald Trump, who last year defended Rittenhouse, issued a statement congratulating Rittenhouse, saying, “if that’s not self-defense, nothing is!”

Others connected to the case responded mournfully. Hannah Gittings, Huber’s girlfriend, said at a small gathering that “the system is telling me no one needs to answer” for what happened. Susan Hughes, Huber’s great aunt who was close with him and testified during the trial, said in an interview she was not surprised by the verdict.

“I live here, I know the community is split,” she said in an interview. Hughes, 74, said she worries the verdict will “embolden” Rittenhouse’s supporters “to be more brazen in some of their actions.”

Huber’s parents and Grosskreutz are suing the city and officials in separate lawsuits over their actions during the unrest. Kimberley Motley, an attorney for Grosskreutz, said in an interview that the verdict sends “a horrible message.”

Rittenhouse was charged with first-degree intentional homicide for shooting Huber, first-degree reckless homicide for shooting Rosenbaum and attempted first-degree intentional homicide for shooting Grosskreutz. He also faced two counts of recklessly endangering the safety of others.

Jurors were told that if they could not come to a unanimous verdict on the charges for shooting Huber and Grosskreutz, they could weigh lesser charges. The teenager was also charged with being too young to possess his weapon and violating the Kenosha curfew, but Schroeder dismissed both during the trial.

After the outcome, Binger called on people to respond “in a civil and peaceful manner” to the jury’s decision.

“While we are disappointed with the verdict, it must be respected,” Binger said in a statement.

Mark Richards, one of Rittenhouse’s defense attorneys, said the teenager was “relieved” by the outcome.

During a news conference outside his Racine, Wis., office, Richards credited the verdict in part to the decision to have Rittenhouse testify during the trial. The attorney was also asked if Rittenhouse had any regrets about what happened, or if he would have done anything differently.

“He wishes none of this would have ever happened,” Richards said. Rittenhouse “has to get on with his life the best he can.”

Richards and David Hancock, a spokesman for Rittenhouse’s family, said the teenager has 24-hour security due to death threats, and the security was expected to continue. The Rittenhouse family, Richards said, would likely move out of the region.

When Rittenhouse went to Kenosha in August 2020, a nationwide reckoning over police violence and racial injustice had zeroed in on the lakefront city. Rusten Sheskey, a White police officer, was filmed shooting Blake, a Black man, seven times, and the incident set off peaceful protests and then bursts of rioting and property damage.

Months later, the district attorney’s office that prosecuted Rittenhouse declined to charge Sheskey, saying Blake was wielding an open knife, resisting officers and had prior domestic violence and sexual assault charges.

With footage of the destruction in Kenosha circulating on television and online after Blake was shot, Rittenhouse traveled there from his home in Antioch, Ill., about 20 miles away. He picked up a rifle that Dominick Black, a friend in Kenosha, had purchased for him since the teenager was too young to legally buy it.

He also brought a medical kit and said he wanted to provide first aid to others. Richards, his attorney, called him “a 17-year-old kid out there trying to help this community.” While prosecutors emphasized that he came in from out of town, Richards said Rittenhouse’s father lived in Kenosha and that the teenager had worked as a lifeguard in the county.

Rittenhouse ended up crossing paths with Rosenbaum, who had been released from a hospital earlier in the day following a suicide attempt. Rosenbaum was carrying a plastic bag given to him by the hospital.

Witnesses said Rosenbaum was acting erratically, and Rittenhouse testified that Rosenbaum threatened him. At one point, Rosenbaum pursued Rittenhouse, a gun was fired nearby and Rosenbaum threw the plastic bag toward the teenager and missed. Rittenhouse testified that Rosenbaum grabbed at his gun and lunged at him, so he opened fire.

During his testimony, Rittenhouse said he feared Rosenbaum would take his gun and use it on others, and the teenager emotionally broke down while describing being pursued.

After Rittenhouse shot Rosenbaum, other people began following the teenager, including Huber, a dedicated skateboarder who knew Blake. Huber swung his skateboard at Rittenhouse twice, and Rittenhouse testified that Huber grabbed his gun. He fired a round into Huber’s chest, killing him.

Grosskreutz was following as well, carrying a Glock pistol in his hand. In his testimony, Grosskreutz said he had provided medical aid at protests throughout the summer and carried his pistol for protection, though he said his conceal carry permit had expired by that night.

Grosskreutz testified that he feared for his life during the encounter. He also acknowledged that Rittenhouse shot him only when Grosskreutz approached with his gun aimed at the teenager. Rittenhouse’s shot blasted apart Grosskreutz’s right biceps.

Just one minute and 20 seconds had elapsed between Rittenhouse’s first gunshot and his last, according to a use-of-force expert the teenager’s attorneys called to the stand.

Afterward, Rittenhouse approached police with his hands raised but was waved on. He later turned himself in to police in Antioch, waiting in the lobby until detectives showed up. While in the lobby, police records say, Rittenhouse cried, vomited and said, “I shot two White kids.”

When he testified last week, Rittenhouse said he brought the gun for protection but only fired it when facing peril.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Rittenhouse testified. “I defended myself.”

During the trial, there was no disagreement over whether Rittenhouse fired the deadly shots. But across 10 days of testimony, attorney statements and evidence, the prosecution and defense sharply diverged in how they portrayed Rittenhouse and these shootings.

Binger said in court that Rittenhouse posed the real danger that night. He called the teenager a “chaos tourist” who was “looking for trouble.” People who pursued Rittenhouse, including Huber and Grosskreutz, were trying to stop an “active shooter,” Binger said.

Richards rejected that description, saying Rittenhouse only “reacted to people attacking him” that night.

“My client didn’t shoot at anyone until he was chased and cornered,” he said during the trial.

When they deliberated, jurors were given an outline of Wisconsin’s self-defense law. A person could use force they reasonably believed was necessary to prevent “actual or imminent unlawful interference with their body,” the jury instructions stated. Deadly force, the instructions said, could be used if needed to stave off serious bodily harm or death.

Jurors were also told to consider whether Rittenhouse provoked the attacks. They could weigh if he had a way to retreat, though he had no obligation to do so, the instructions said.

Deliberations were private, so outside legal observers were left to guess about how jurors reached their decision. Some experts said they had expected Rittenhouse to be acquitted on at least the most serious counts, if not all counts.

But the fact that it took several days suggests “there were holdouts, there were camps, and over time, people from one camp gradually shifted into the other,” said Jeremiah Meyer-O’Day, a former public defender.

Legal experts said the heightened attention on the case may have spurred heated public debates over other issues, such as people carrying deadly weapons in public settings, but that the trial itself was not about those subjects.

“Ultimately, this case was a case about self-defense, nothing more, nothing less,” said Julius Kim, a former assistant district attorney in Milwaukee County and now a criminal defense lawyer. “The issue in this trial was very narrow.”

The case’s broader notoriety was an inescapable feature of the trial, beginning with jury selection on Nov. 1, when every potential juror acknowledged having heard or read about it beforehand. Potential jurors also expressed concern about being affiliated with such a disputed case.

But the outside debates touched on subjects not at issue for what the jurors had to decide, the legal experts said.

“It got ugly because he made a poor decision to put himself in a situation where it was flammable,” Kim said of the shootings. “But the question was: Was he legally justified in shooting his firearm at the time he did? And the jurors believe that he was.”

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