Double homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse tests claims of self-defence in racial justice protest killings

Teen has pleaded not guilty after fatally shooting two people and injuring another during uprisings in Kenosha, Wisconsin in 2020

Alex Woodward
New York
Monday 01 November 2021 20:39 GMT
Tucker Carlson defends Kenosha vigilante shooter
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On 23 August, 2020, widely shared video captured a white police officer firing seven shots at a Black man in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The shooting revived racial justice protests in a town of roughly 100,000 people on the shores of Lake Michigan – brought into sharp relief in the middle of a summer of uprisings following the police murder of George Floyd.

On the third night of protests, after a local militia put out a call for armed support on social media, a white 17-year-old from Illinois fatally shot two men and injured another on the streets of Kenosha.

Kyle Rittenhouse, now 18, was 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.

On 1 November, he appeared inside the Kenosha Courthouse in a grey suit before the jury selection process began for a trial that is expected to take two to three weeks. It will be televised.

He faces life in prison, if convicted. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts.

Jacob Blake, the Black man who was shot by police in Wisconsin, was left paralysed from the waist down. The officer who fired his weapon, Rusten Sheskey, will not face criminal charges, and the US Department of Justice has declined to file federal civil rights charges against him.

A trial is underway for Mr Rittenhouse, who was hailed as a martyr and patriot by far-right demonstrators and publicly defended by former president Donald Trump in the aftermath of the Kenosha protests.

The case has underscored debate over the growing presence of militarised civilians and self-styled militia groups to suppress racial justice protests, and whether the American right’s embrace of Second Amendment protections strikes at the expense of First Amendment rights.

Here is a timeline of events

The shooting of Jacob Blake

On 23 August, 2020, Kenosha Police Department officers responded to a domestic complaint and attempted to place Mr Blake into custody. As Mr Blake tried to open the driver’s side door of a car, where his three children were seated in the back, Officer Sheskey grabbed him and fired seven shots. Four of those shots hit Mr Blake in the back, according to the family’s attorney.

Officers later said they were aware of a warrant for his arrest on charges of third-degree sexual assault, trespassing and disorderly conduct, and the state’s attorney general said a knife was found on the floor of the driver’s side of the car.

The protests

A state of emergency was declared on 23 August as law enforcement fired tear gas and rubber bullets to beat back crowds near a county courthouse.

As protests entered a third night, a Facebook post from Kenosha Guard – written by a former city alderman, Kevin Mathewson – asked whether any “patriots” were “willing to take up arms and defend [our] City tonight from the evil thugs.

“Nondoubt [sic] they are currently planning on the next part of the city to burn tonight!” said the post on the morning of 25 August. Violent comments rolled in.

“I fully plan to kill looters and rioters tonight,” one person wrote in the post’s comments. “These fools won’t even know what hit them.”

As protests entered a third night, members of mostly white and heavily armed and armoured self-styled militia groups patrolled the outside of several buildings and streets.

Who is Kyle Rittenhouse?

On 24 August, 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse and a friend drove roughly 20 miles from his home in Antioch, Illinois to Kenosha.

According to his attorneys, Mr Rittenhouse and a friend helped remove graffiti from a local high school and received information from a local business owner for help defending a downtown auto dealership.

On his social media pages, Mr Rittenhouse – a one-time youth “public safety cadet” with an Illinois police department – posted support for “Blue Lives Matter” and then-president Donald Trump. He had also attended a Trump rally several months earlier.

On the night of 23 August, a reporter from right-wing website The Daily Caller interviewed Mr Rittenhouse – filmed wearing a green T-shirt and backwards cap – while he held an AR-15-style rifle, reportedly a Smith & Wesson M&P15, which Mr Rittenhouse was not legally allowed to carry in Wisconsin.

He reportedly bought the gun with a coronavirus stimulus check, according to The Washington Post.

“So people are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business, and a part of my job is to also help people,” he said in the video. “If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle because I need to protect myself, obviously. But I also have my med kit.”

The shootings on 25 August

National Guard service members were deployed to the city. After a crowd lingered outside the courthouse after curfew, police began to disperse them into nearby streets.

Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, was filmed appearing to chase Mr Rittenhouse into a parking lot and throwing a plastic bag at him, according to a criminal complaint.

In one piece of video from that night, someone in the crowd behind them can be seen firing a handgun. As Mr Rosenbaum got closer to Mr Rittenhouse, he fired four rounds.

He then can be seen jogging away from the scene still carrying his firearm. A journalist who was following the two men told law enforcement that Mr Rosenbaum was trying to disarm Mr Rittenhouse, according to the complaint.

“I just killed somebody,” he said on the phone, the complaint said.

Earlier that day, Mr Rosenbaum, who was bipolar and experiencing homelessness, was discharged from a hospital following a suicide attempt, according to The Washington Post. He was not involved with racial justice protests, according to the newspaper; video footage from that night showed him confronting armed militia members as a group of protesters told them to leave.

Video footage captures voices yelling out “he shot him” and “get him” as Mr Rittenhouse flees the parking lot and jogs down a street.

Footage shows him tripping and falling as two people chase behind him and appear to try to disarm him.

Anthony Huber, 26 years old, held a skateboard as he tried to reach for Mr Rittenhouse’s rifle. He was shot in the chest.

Mr Rittenhouse then pointed his gun at another man, a street medic named Gaige Grosskreutz, who was holding a handgun, according to the complaint. He was shot in the right arm and called out for medical attention as he walked away.

Mr Huber’s father filed a federal lawsuit in August 2021 accusing Kenosha police of effectively deputising and conspiring with armed people, which “directly caused” his son’s death, the suit alleges.

“Defendants’ open support of and coordination with the armed individuals in the minutes and hours before the shootings deprived Anthony Huber and the other protesters of the basic protections typically provided by police,” the lawsuit claims. “It was a license for the armed individuals to wreak havoc and inflict injury.”

After firing at the two men, Mr Rittenhouse can be seen in video jogging toward a group of law enforcement vehicles blocking the road and raising his hands.

He drove to his home in Illinois that night.

The aftermath

Mr Rittenhouse turned himself in to Illinois police on 26 August. A criminal complaint labelled him a “fugitive from justice” who “fled the state of Wisconsin with intent to avoid prosecution for that offense.”

Kenosha County District Attorney’s office charged Mr Rittenhouse with six criminal charges while he awaited extradition to Wisconsin from a juvenile detention facility.

On 31 August, the day before he visited Kenosha, then-president Trump was asked whether he condemned Mr Rittenhouse’s actions.

“You saw the same tape as I saw,” Mr Trump said. “And he was trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like. And he fell, and then they very violently attacked him. And it was something that we’re looking at right now and it’s under investigation. But I guess he was in very big trouble. … He probably would have been killed.”

During a broadcast of his programme that week, Fox News host Tucker Carlson appeared to come to his defence, saying, “Are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?”

“How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?” he said.

A foundation from Lin Wood – an attorney who relied on bogus conspiracy theories in an attempt to overturn 2020 presidential election results – also raised $2m for Mr Rittenhouse’s defence.

In October 2020, Mr Rittenhouse was extradited to Wisconsin, and an attorney posted $2m cash bail on 20 November. Shortly after his release, Florida state representative Anthony Sabatini wrote “KYLE RITTENHOUSE FOR CONGRESS” on his Twitter account.

Slogans like “Free Kyle” and “Kyle’s Life Matters” appeared at far-right rallies, Trump events and across social media in the months after the shooting. While released, Mr Rittenhouse was also captured flashing white power-associated “OK” hand sign, and prosecutors alleged that he was joined by five men who sang a song associated with the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist gang.

In January, a judge amended his bail terms to note that Mr Rittenhouse “shall not knowingly have conduct with any person or group of persons known to harm, threaten, harass or menace others on the basis of their race, beliefs on the subject of religion, color, national origin, or gender.”

The trial

Mr Rittenhouse pleaded not guilty to all counts against him on 5 January.

Ahead of the criminal trial beginning on 1 November, Kenosha Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder upheld a policy in his courtroom that the victims in the case cannot be called victims – the defence can refer to them as “rioters, looters and arsonists,” he said.

“This is not a political trial,” Judge Schroeder said on 1 November as jury selection was underway. “It was mentioned by both political campaigns and the presidential campaign last year, in some instances very, very imprudently.”

Judge Schroeder added that he does not want the trial “sidetracked into other issues,” such as Second Amendment rights.

Most of the potential jurors are white; reporters noted that only three Black women were among the pool.

Assistant district attorney Thomas Binger asked potential jurors whether they participated in protests or counter protests or if they felt they needed to arm themselves in the wake of last August’s events. Several hands shot up.

Central to the trial is Mr Rittenhouse’s claim of self defence, which under Wisconsin law prosecutors must disprove beyond a reasonable doubt.

During a pretrial hearing, Mr Binger said Mr Rittenhouse is “not a resident, he’s underage, he’s out after curfew, he’s armed with an illegal weapon.”

“Why?” he said. “That is the question.”

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