A self-described “professional commentator” for far-right network Real America’s Voice has testified in the double homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teenager who drove across state lines to Kenosha, Wisconsin where he killed two men and injured another during protests against police violence last year.
The judge in the trial has prohibited the use of the term “victims” to describe the people Mr Rittenhouse killed but has allowed the use of charged terms like “rioters” and “looters” to describe the aftermath of the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020.
Defence witness Drew Hernandez, who was not working for Real America’s Voice at the time but has published extensive right-wing commentary across his social media channels, cast the demonstrations on 25 August 2020 as “riots” by “antifa” during his testimony on 11 November as he walked through his footage from that night.
Asked by the prosecution whether he has ever posted on social media in support of Mr Rittenhouse, Mr Hernandez said “one can argue yes”.
The defence rested its case on Thursday afternoon following eight days of testimony, while Kenosha law enforcement is preparing for unrest following the jury’s verdict, expected next week. Jurors will report back to the courthouse on Monday for closing arguments from both legal teams.
Prosecutors said they will intend to ask for “lesser included” charges against Mr Rittenhouse to be submitted to the jury.
Earlier this month, Judge Bruce Schroeder – the longest-serving active judge in Wisconsin trial courts – said “this is not a political trial” and told legal teams not to get “sidetracked” on other issues.
During cross examination, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger asked Mr Hernandez whether the Real America’s Voice website – which is covering the trial – has any “political bias or agenda”. Mr Hernandez has also posted about the trial on his Twitter account.
“Bias in what respect?” Judge Schroeder interrupted. “This is not a political trial. I don’t know how you would isolate a person’s personal politics and determine that person is going to evaluate the evidence one way or the other.”
On his personal website, Mr Hernandez says he is known “for his extensive and viral undercover work exposing Antifa and Black Lives Matter violent riots in 2020 that reached multiple countries worldwide. He has made multiple appearances on Tucker Carlson Tonight, Fox News Shows, OANN, NEWSMAX, INFOWARS, and MORE.”
A report from The Intercept included Mr Hernandez among members “of an informal club of right-wing video journalists who roam from city to city, feeding the conservative media’s hunger for images of destruction and violence on the margins of left-wing protests”.
He also joined a rally in Washington DC on 15 November 2020 following that year’s presidential elections, telling a crowd that “we will not go down without bloodshed”.
“The media can take what I say and tell me I’m violent. I don’t care,” he said. “‘Antifa’ and Black Lives Matter brought us to this point. If they want a fight, they got one.”
He added: “If they want a second civil war, then they got one. Because I will not let this country fall. I will not let this country burn. I will fight to the very last breath.”
Real America’s Voice, which hosts Steve Bannon’s War Room series, gained prominence in 2018 and 2019 as a platform for QAnon-related conspiracy theories. Over the last year, it has amplified baseless election fraud narratives and anti-Covid-19 vaccine rhetoric.
Mr Hernandez told the court on Thursday that Joseph Rosenbaum “was pushing a flaming dumpster on fire into police vehicles that were occupied by officers and human beings” on 25 August 2020.
After Mr Rittenhouse fatally shot Mr Rosenbaum, Mr Hernandez wrote on Twitter: “It appears an armed citizen was defending the car dealership and opened fire on the rioter who was attempting to vandalize or burn the dealership down … Before this shooting took place, the rioters were planning to burn down their ‘next car dealership’.”
Mr Hernandez also told the court he is a “journalist” and “reporter”. Mr Binger asked him to clarify after he initially introduced himself as a “commentator”.
“All of the above,” Mr Hernandez said.
Judge Schroeder dismissed the jury for lunch after the defence objected to Mr Binger’s line of questioning about Mr Hernandez’s legal representation.
Defence attorney Corey Chirafisi said Mr Hernandez obtained a Madison-based lawyer after law enforcement searched his phone for evidence, which he said is common practice. That attorney also represents another defence witness.
Thursday’s testimony rounds out a second week in the trial, as legal teams prepare to make their final statements before the jury deliberates.
Mr Rittenhouse appeared on the witness stand on Wednesday, publicly detailing the night of the shootings for the first time as his attorneys sought to frame his actions as self-defence against a violent mob. Prosecutors have argued that Mr Rittenhouse – armed with an AR-15-style rifle that night – intentionally used deadly force as he fired at several men, ultimately killing two men and injuring another, and was responsible for making the scene more dangerous that night.
He is charged with five felonies, including first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree intentional homicide and attempted first-degree intentional homicide, and two counts of recklessly endangering safety in the first degree. He also was charged with possession of a dangerous weapon under the age of 18, a misdemeanor. He has pleaded not guilty.
Mr Rittenhouse faces a mandatory life sentence, if convicted on the most serious charge against him.
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