Kyle Rittenhouse case goes to jury in Kenosha as polarized nation awaits verdict

·9 min read
Kyle Rittenhouse case goes to jury in Kenosha as polarized nation awaits verdict

The Kyle Rittenhouse trial ended much as it began, with defense attorneys painting the teen gunman as a do-gooder who came under attack and prosecutors portraying him as a wannabe soldier who fatally shot two unarmed men.

The dueling portraits reflect the way a polarized country has viewed the shooting since it happened, and the closing arguments occasionally mimicked the vitriolic sound bites that have inflamed the case from the start. In a trial based on a very specific legal question, the politics surrounding the case — the First Amendment, the Second Amendment and police shootings — played a prominent role in the closing arguments.

Rittenhouse, then a 17-year-old resident of north suburban Antioch, volunteered to patrol downtown Kenosha in August 2020 amid turmoil surrounding the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man left partially paralyzed after being shot by a white police officer during a domestic disturbance call days earlier. Prosecutors later declined to charge the officer with wrongdoing.

Carrying an AR-15-style rifle that police say a friend illegally purchased for him, Rittenhouse fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz during the third night of unrest in the city. Rittenhouse is charged with reckless homicide, intentional homicide and attempted intentional homicide related to his actions toward the men, respectively.

Rittenhouse argues he fired his rifle — including four times at Rosenbaum — in self-defense. His attorney Mark Richards went so far as to compare Rittenhouse’s actions to that of the police officer who shot Blake.

“Other people in this community have been shot seven times and it was found to be OK,” he said. “My client shot someone four times.”

Blake’s uncle Justin told the Tribune that he considered the remark “a dig” at his family, but he wanted to focus on getting justice for the men Rittenhouse shot.

“We’re going to get it right today,” Justin Blake said. “The Blake family knows what injustice feels like, clearly. We don’t want these two families going through that. They should be able to get justice under the law.”

Following the daylong arguments, the jury voted to begin deliberations at 9 a.m. Tuesday. Before they begin discussing a verdict, however, the judge will place the numbers of all 18 jurors who listened to the testimony in a brown lottery tumbler and select the dozen who will decide the case.

In another sign of the political divisiveness the case has inspired, the judge warned the jurors not to base their verdict on anything the president of the United States — or the president before him — has said about the shootings.

During his argument, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger said Rittenhouse envisioned himself “some sort of Western hero” and repeatedly called him a liar who aggrandized his abilities. Telling jurors Rittenhouse has shown no remorse, Binger warned against falling for claims the teen’s youth and inexperience played into his panicked mindset.

“Those are excuses,” Binger said. “Those are not legal justifications to kill.”

The defense, for its part, argued Rittenhouse went to Kenosha because he was heartbroken by the arsons and looting in the aftermath of Blake’s shooting. Richards derided the prosecution’s attempts to portray the teen as “a chaos tourist,” saying he spent the afternoon scrubbing graffiti off a vandalized high school.

“It just shows he’s interested in his community and trying to do good,” Richards said.

As Richards spoke, outside protesters could be heard in the courtroom for the first time since the trial began. Their chants were not loud or clear enough to discern, but the demonstrations reflected the fractured views surrounding the proceedings.

A handful of protesters offered chants against white supremacy on one side of Civic Center Park while, on the other, St. Louis attorneys Mark and Patricia McCloskey pledged their support for Rittenhouse.

The couple gained notoriety last year after waving guns at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their home; they claimed they had been threatened but later pleaded guilty to misdemeanors. Missouri’s governor pardoned them in August.

“We have been in similar circumstances ourselves and we’re hoping the jury acquits him on all counts,” said Mark McCloskey, who is running for one of Missouri’s U.S. Senate seats. “We think the evidence is fairly strong that he acted in self-defense.”

Shortly before arguments began, Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder dismissed a misdemeanor gun charge against the teenager, saying a poorly worded state law seems to allow 17-year-olds to openly carry loaded firearms as long as they are of legal length. In dismissing the count, many legal experts suggest, the ruling cost the state its strongest shot at securing a conviction.

That did not prevent prosecutors from talking about the gun and reasonableness of Rittenhouse showing up with one.

“I think we can all agree we shouldn’t have 17-year-olds running around the street with AR-15s because this is what happens,” Binger said.

Rittenhouse had fired the gun only once prior to that chaotic night, shooting about 100 rounds on a friend’s property in northern Wisconsin. He took the rifle to downtown Kenosha, loading it with about 30 rounds of full metal jacket ammunition.

As in other states, Wisconsin allows people to use guns to defend themselves against serious threats, but there are exceptions to that right, including the reasonableness of his belief his actions were necessary to prevent his death or serious injury. The jury must answer that question from the defendant’s viewpoint at the time of the alleged offenses.

The judge also approved a provocation instruction, meaning jurors will be asked to determine whether he provoked the confrontation with Rosenbaum, an unarmed man who chased Rittenhouse before the shooting. If the panel finds Rittenhouse was the provoker, legal experts say, his self-defense claim could be negated.

Prosecutors argue Rittenhouse sparked the incident when he pointed his rifle at a bystander and Rosenbaum gave chase. Binger repeatedly showed jurors a drone video that prosecutors say backs up this claim.

“This is the provocation,” Binger said. “This is what starts the incident.”

Richards blasted the suggestion Rittenhouse sparked the confrontation, saying Binger never mentioned this theory during opening statements and only invented it mid-trial because his case was in trouble.

It was one of several personal attacks Richards lobbed at Binger, a veteran prosecutor who is prosecuting several cases related to the unrest. Saying Binger sounded like “a wimpy defense attorney,” he accused Binger of misleading the jury in a desperate attempt to win the case.

“It means he has been cutting corners,” Richards said.

Richards also attacked the men Rittenhouse shot, particularly Rosenbaum, whose aggressive, erratic behavior was well-documented during the trial. Rosenbaum, who had just been released from a psychiatric hospital, participated in a Dumpster fire and other vandalism.

“He was a bad man,” Richards said. “He was a rioter. He was causing trouble that night, and my client had to deal with him alone.”

He also called Huber a “rioter” and accused him of arson, though there was no such evidence presented in the case.

“The defense wants you to believe that these people got what was coming to them, that they were bad people doing bad things and we should be proud and boastful of Mr. Rittenhouse for killing them,” Assistant District Attorney James Kraus said during the state’s rebuttal argument.

After shooting Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse ran from the scene, despite having a medical kit with supplies meant to stop bleeding quickly. Prosecutors showed a video of a dying Rosenbaum struggling to breathe as professional videographer Richard McGinniss worked to save him.

“While that’s going on, the defendant flees, callously disregarding the body of the man he just shot,” Binger said.

Richards told the jury Rittenhouse would have been attacked if he stayed at the scene. He did not, however, explain why he didn’t call 911 as McGinniss asked.

As Rittenhouse headed down Kenosha’s main road, he testified in his defense last week, Huber hit him with his skateboard, causing him to become lightheaded and stumble to the ground. While on the ground, a man jumped over Rittenhouse and attempted to kick his head. Rittenhouse fired two shots at him and missed. He faces a reckless endangerment charge for those shots.

Huber then attempted to stop Rittenhouse with his skateboard, hitting him in the head. The teen fired a single shot into Huber’s chest, killing him almost immediately.

Binger described both men as heroes willing to risk their own safety.

“They’re not a credible, imminent threat to his life,” Binger said. “They’re trying to stop an active shooter.”

Richards pushed back on that assertion, saying Rittenhouse was not a threat to anyone as he headed down the street to turn himself in.

“Kyle was not an active shooter,” he said. “It’s a buzzword the state wants to latch onto because it excuses the actions of the mob.”

In the video, Grosskreutz approached Rittenhouse with a cellphone in one hand and his pistol in the other. Video shows the teen turning toward him with his rifle and Grosskreutz raising his hands.

Rittenhouse then checked his gun, and Grosskreutz took a step forward, his left arm stretched out and the hand holding the gun pulled back with the barrel pointed toward the teen. Rittenhouse fired a bullet into his arm, essentially blowing off his right bicep.

When Binger showed the jury a close-up photo of Grosskreutz’s bicep largely obliterated, several jurors appeared to wince and turn away. Binger acknowledged their reaction, saying, “It’s hard to look at, but this is what we are dealing with.”

After shooting Grosskreutz, Rittenhouse made his way down the street “like he’s some sort of hero in a Western, without a care in the world for anything he’s done,” Binger said.

“This is someone who has no remorse,” Binger told the jury. “No regard for life, only cares about himself.”

Rittenhouse tried to turn himself in, but the patrol officers ignored his attempts to surrender and drove by him. His friend, Dominick Black, eventually drove him back home, where he turned himself in at the Antioch police station.