By Mark Guarino and Mark Berman
November 15, 2021 at 7:42 p.m. EST
KENOSHA, Wis. — Jurors in Kyle Rittenhouse’s homicide trial are set to begin deliberations on Tuesday, putting the fiercely divisive case and the teenager’s fate in their hands.
The prosecution and defense spent most of Monday using their closing arguments to offer sharply divergent depictions of the case, which became a political flash point after Rittenhouse went to Kenosha in August 2020 and shot three people, killing two, during the unrest that followed a police shooting.
In the prosecution’s telling, Rittenhouse was a “chaos tourist” who acted recklessly and posed a threat to people on Kenosha’s streets. The defense instead described Rittenhouse as a concerned citizen who went to Kenosha to help and “didn’t shoot at anyone until he was chased and cornered.”
Their narratives intersected on one main point: The case, which has drawn nationwide attention to Kenosha, will be decided by how jurors assess Rittenhouse’s self-defense claims.
“We all know this case comes down to self-defense,” said Thomas Binger, one of the prosecutors, during his closing remarks. “But there’s a high bar for using deadly force in a self-defense situation.”
Mark Richards, one of the defense attorneys, said Rittenhouse cleared that bar. “Kyle Rittenhouse’s behavior was protected under the law of the state of Wisconsin, the law of self-defense,” he said.
Their closing arguments capped what has been an arduous, sometimes acrimonious trial in a courthouse a few blocks from where Rittenhouse fatally shot 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum and 26-year-old Anthony Huber. His gunfire also struck Gaige Grosskreutz, then 26, who survived.
Rittenhouse, then 17, was one of many armed civilians who went to Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020, some saying they wanted to help protect a shaken city. Two days earlier, a White police officer shot and injured Jacob Blake, a Black man, setting off protests and then rioting. Prosecutors later declined to charge Rusten Sheskey, the officer, saying Blake was armed with an open knife and resisting arrest.
While on Kenosha’s streets, Rittenhouse was armed with a rifle purchased by a friend because he was too young to legally buy it himself. He crossed paths with Rosenbaum, who had been released from a hospital earlier in the day after a suicide attempt, and then Huber and Grosskreutz.
Rittenhouse testified last week that he shot the men because they all posed threats. He said Rosenbaum and Huber chased him and grabbed his gun; Grosskreutz, he said, had lunged forward, pointing a gun at him.
“I defended myself,” Rittenhouse testified last week.
During his closing arguments on Monday, Binger said it was Rittenhouse who imperiled others that night, not the other way around. The prosecutor, speaking as Rittenhouse watched, said the teenager had willingly and inappropriately gone to a volatile scene.
“He is intentionally … entering a dangerous situation and he knows it,” Binger said. “I remember that night. I didn’t come down here. I don’t think most people did. In part because we all knew it would be violent and dangerous. Most reasonable people, if they came out, they were gone by [the time of the shooting]. Unless you want trouble.”
Throughout his remarks, Binger returned again and again to the idea of self-defense. He argued that the crowd that encountered Rittenhouse was entitled to act in self-defense, saying the teenager appeared, to the crowd, like an “active shooter.”
Rittenhouse had been pursued by Rosenbaum before the first shooting, and a witness said Rosenbaum had grabbed at the teenager’s gun. When he testified, Rittenhouse said he was afraid Rosenbaum would take the rifle and use it on him and others. Binger dismissed that idea, saying Rittenhouse’s defense was offering it “because they know you can’t claim self-defense against an unarmed man.”
When Rittenhouse testified last week, he broke down at one point, gasping for air, and Binger brought that up on Monday, saying it illustrated who Rittenhouse cared about.
“Even on the witness stand he broke down crying about himself, not anyone he hurt that night,” Binger said. “No remorse, no concern for anyone else.”
In his closing arguments, Richards, the defense attorney, depicted Rittenhouse as a civic-minded teen with good intentions who was facing an imminent threat. Rittenhouse, he said, went into a city where he worked and had connections, cleaned up graffiti and ended up facing violent people that night.
“My client was a 17-year-old,” he said. “His actions should be judged as a 17-year-old.”
During the first part of Richards’s closing remarks, chanting demonstrators outside could be heard through the windows. Richards pushed back at many of Binger’s statements, assailing the prosecutor while arguing that his client only fired when threatened by other people.
“This case is not a game,” Richards said. “It is my client’s life.”
Richards used part of his closing argument to ridicule Binger, comparing him to “a whiny defense lawyer,” saying his case was “exploding” and calling him a liar.
Richards also took aim at Binger’s depiction of Rittenhouse as an active shooter, saying that prosecutors were invoking the term “because of the loaded connotations” it brings. People associate it with school shootings and movie theater attacks, he said.
“The definition of an active shooter is somebody with a plan to inflict multiple casualties, usually out of anger or animus toward a group,” Richards said. “This case, what caused Kyle Rittenhouse to shoot somebody? Joseph Rosenbaum.”
Richards said Rosenbaum “was shot because he was chasing my client and was going to kill him.” And, Richards added, he was glad Rittenhouse shot him, saying “if Joseph Rosenbaum got that gun, I don’t believe for a minute he wouldn’t have used it on anyone else. He was irrational and crazy.”
Richards also took aim at the credibility of Grosskreutz, who he noted had an expired conceal-carry permit for the Glock he possessed the night of the shootings and pointed at Rittenhouse before the teen shot him. Grosskreutz also told police he had dropped his gun, Richards said, which was untrue, but he added that prosecutors had not gone after him for that.
“Most people, when they lie to the police, you get into a bit of trouble,” Richards said. “Not Mr. Grosskreutz, because he’s their star witness, bought and paid for.”
While Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder had emphasized during the trial that it was not political, Richards disagreed.
“This is a political case,” Richards told jurors, saying there was a “rush to judgment.” Prosecutors, he said, needed “somebody to be responsible” for the chaos and wanted to say they found the person “who brought terror to Kenosha.”
“Kyle Rittenhouse is not that individual,” he said.
The case will now go to jurors tasked with weighing the five charges against Rittenhouse, including first-degree reckless homicide for killing Rosenbaum, first-degree intentional homicide for killing Huber and attempted first-degree intentional homicide for shooting Grosskreutz. Rittenhouse is also charged with two counts of recklessly endangering the safety of others. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.
Schroeder dismissed a sixth count Monday that had alleged Rittenhouse unlawfully possessed a dangerous weapon while being too young.
Jurors deciding Rittenhouse’s fate can also consider more than just the five remaining counts, because Schroeder agreed to let jurors weigh lesser charges for two charges. If the jurors cannot agree on the counts relating to the Huber or Grosskreutz shootings, jury instructions state, they can instead decide if Rittenhouse is guilty of lesser charges in both cases.
The jury instructions operate essentially as a blueprint for jurors weighing the case. They include a description of the self-defense law they have to consider, saying that someone can use force in self-defense if they believe it is necessary to prevent “interference” with their body, that this force is necessary to stop it and that their beliefs are deemed reasonable. Jurors also need to consider if the person provoked the attack, the instructions add.
Authorities have signaled that they are bracing for potential unrest that could follow the verdict. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D) last week said he authorized 500 Army National Guard troops to be on standby outside Kenosha in case they are needed by local law enforcement officials.
Evers urged people not from the area to avoid traveling there, saying in a statement that he asked people “who might choose to assemble and exercise their First Amendment rights to do so safely and peacefully.”