On Nov. 19, eighteen-year old Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted on all charges in his trial over the shootings of three white men, two of whom died, during demonstrations in Kenosha, WI over a year ago.
In Aug. 2020, Rittenhouse, a resident of Antioch, IL, located just across the border of Wisconsin, partook in demonstrations after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot and wounded by a white police officer, Rusten Sheskey, in Kenosha. Occurring only a few months after the killing of George Floyd in police custody, the event sparked mass protests in the streets of Kenosha. After Blake’s shooting, the city of Kenosha experienced looting, crime, and destruction of homes and businesses. Rittenhouse contended that he shot in self-defense during the demonstrations that occurred a few days after the shooting.
Rittenhouse faced charges of intentional, reckless and attempted homicide, as well as reckless endangerment. On the night of Aug. 25, 2020, he patrolled Kenosha with his military-style semi-automatic rifle, claiming to be protecting the community. He shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounded Gaige Grosskruetz.
Arguing in his defense, attorney Mark Richards stated that “Kyle was a 17-year-old kid out there trying to help this community. He did provide aid and he was asking if anybody needed aid.”
In the months before the trial, Rittenhouse amassed a large following of supporters who donated to his legal defense and praised him as a hero protecting local businesses that night. Up until the trial, he was free on a two million dollar bail that was mainly raised by these online supporters.
In Wisconsin, the defense only has to point to some evidence that the shootings were acts of self-defense, whereas the prosecution has to prove that it was not self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. The defense provided evidence that Rittenhouse was chased, faced threats, and was struck by a skateboard. Additionally, Rittenhouse testified that he feared for his life and only began firing when Joseph Rosenbaum pointed his rifle toward him.
One of the prosecution’s key pieces of evidence against the defense’s self-defense argument was a video of Rittenhouse saying a few weeks before the riots that he wanted a gun to shoot people in Kenosha whom he thought were shoplifting. The judge ruled that the video was not relevant, and it was thrown out of the case. This, as well as other missteps, severely hurt the prosecution.
The defense was also aided by Mr. Rosenbaum’s fiancée, Kariann Swart’s, testimony in which she revealed Rosenbaum’s troubled mental state and internal battles with mental illness. She helped further paint the defense’s picture of Rosenbaum as a dangerous man whom Rittenhouse was protecting himself and the community against.
Wisconsin is an open-carry state, which means that citizens can carry legal firearms in public places even if they do not have a permit. But, this adjudication does not extend to minors, and at the time of the shootings, Rittenhouse was 17-years-old. Despite this, at the end of the trial, a misdemeanor weapons charge was dismissed because of the length of the barrel on Rittenhouse’s rifle.
When he was acquitted of all charges, Rittenhouse clutched his jacket and collapsed in sobs. While many celebrated the jury’s decision claiming Rittenhouse did what was necessary to protect himself and his community, others have condemned the result. They say it raises safety questions about open-carry laws and whether these embolden people to act violently.
In the wake of the jury’s decision, President Biden called upon everyone “to express their views peacefully, consistent with the rule of law.” Additionally, Biden said that “while the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken.”