Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges Friday after pleading self-defense in the deadly Kenosha shootings that became a flashpoint in the debate over guns, vigilantism and racial injustice in the U.S.
Rittenhouse, 18, began to choke up, fell forward toward the defense table and then hugged one of his attorneys as he heard a court clerk recite “not guilty” five times.
He was charged with homicide, attempted homicide and reckless endangering for killing two men and wounding a third with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle in the summer of 2020 during a tumultuous night of protests over the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white Kenosha police officer.
Rittenhouse, a former police youth cadet, said he went to Kenosha to protect property from rioters. He is white, as were those he shot.
The anonymous jury, which appeared to be overwhelmingly white, deliberated for close to 3 1/2 days.
Rittenhouse could have gotten life in prison if found guilty on the most serious charge, first-degree intentional homicide, or what some other states call first-degree murder. Two other charges each carried over 60 years behind bars.
A sheriff’s deputy immediately whisked him out a back door through the judge’s chambers.
As he dismissed the jurors who sat in judgment in the politically combustible case, Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder assured them the court would take “every measure” to keep them safe.
In reaction to the verdict, prosecutor Thomas Binger said the jury had spoken.
Rittenhouse’s mother, sitting several feet away from him on a courtroom bench, gasped in delight, began crying and hugged others around her.
Family spokesman David Hancock said outside the courthouse that Rittenhouse plans to study nursing in college.
“I think you’re going to see some good things that come out of Kyle in the future,” Hancock said. “He’s a very, very pragmatic young man who’s been through a lot.” He added: “He is innocent and he can live a free life now. There are no winners in this.”
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is Black and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, denounced the outcome.
“Over the last few weeks, many dreaded the outcome we just witnessed,” Barnes said. “The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is what we should expect from our judicial system, but that standard is not always applied equally. We have seen so many black and brown youth killed, only to be put on trial posthumously, while the innocence of Kyle Rittenhouse was virtually demanded by the judge.”
Political figures on the right, meanwhile, welcomed the verdict and condemned the case brought against Rittenhouse.
“All of us who knew what actually happened in Kenosha last year assumed this would be the verdict,” tweeted Republican former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. “Thankfully, the jury thought the same.”
Democratic Gov. Tony Evers, who announced last week that 500 National Guard members stood ready in case of trouble after the verdict, repeated his plea for calm.
Rittenhouse was 17 when he went to Kenosha from his home in nearby Antioch, Illinois, after businesses were ransacked and burned in the nights that followed Blake’s shooting. Rittenhouse carried a weapon authorities said was illegally purchased for the underage young man, joining other armed civilians on the streets.
Bystander and drone video captured most of the frenzied chain of events that followed: Rittenhouse killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, then shot to death protester Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded demonstrator Gaige Grosskreutz, now 28.
Prosecutors portrayed Rittenhouse as a “wannabe soldier” who had gone looking for trouble that night and was responsible for creating a dangerous situation in the first place by pointing his rifle at demonstrators.
But Rittenhouse testified: “I didn’t do anything wrong. I defended myself.”
Breaking into sobs at one point, he told the jury he opened fire after Rosenbaum chased him and made a grab for his gun. He said he was afraid his rifle was going to be wrested away and used to kill him.
Huber was then killed after hitting Rittenhouse in the head or neck with a skateboard, and Grosskreutz was shot after pointing a gun of his own at Rittenhouse.
After the verdict, Huber’s parents, Karen Bloom and John Huber, said the outcome “sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.”
The case was part of an extraordinary confluence of trials that reflected the deep divide over race in the United States: In Georgia, three white men are on trial in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, while in Virginia, a trial is underway in a lawsuit over the deadly white-supremacist rally held in Charlottesville in 2017.
The exact racial makeup of the Rittenhouse jury wasn’t clear because jurors were not asked about their race in court.
The bloodshed in Kenosha took place during a summer of sometimes-violent protests set off across the U.S. by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other cases involving the police use of force against Black people.
While some Americans condemned Rittenhouse as a vigilante, some on the right hailed him as a hero who exercised his Second Amendment gun rights and tried to put a stop to lawlessness.
Then-President Donald Trump said it appeared Rittenhouse had been “very violently attacked.” Supporters donated more than $2 million toward his legal defense.
Rittenhouse had also been charged with possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18, a misdemeanor that carries nine months behind bars and appeared likely to lead to a conviction. But the judge threw out that charge before jury deliberations after the defense argued that the Wisconsin law did not apply to the long-barreled rifle used by Rittenhouse.
Schroeder’s handling of the trial drew attention at several points, including when he led applause for military veterans on Veterans Day just before a defense witness who had been in the Army was about to take the stand. The judge also let Rittenhouse himself draw juror numbers from a raffle drum to set the final 12 who deliberated.
Video and testimony from some of the prosecution’s own witnesses seemed to buttress Rittenhouse’s claim of self-defense.
Witnesses described Rosenbaum as “hyperaggressive” and said that he dared others to shoot him and threatened to kill Rittenhouse earlier that night. A videographer testified Rosenbaum lunged for the rifle just before he was shot, and a pathologist said his injuries appeared to indicate his hand was over the barrel.
Also, Rosenbaum’s fiancee disclosed that he was on medication for bipolar disorder and depression. Rittenhouse’s lawyers branded Rosenbaum a “crazy person.”
Some civil rights activists saw a racial double standard in the way the white gunman was treated.
On the night of the shootings, law enforcement officers saw Rittenhouse and other armed people on the streets despite a curfew and gave them bottles of water, with one officer heard saying over a loudspeaker, “We appreciate you guys.”
Later, amid the tumult, Rittenhouse managed to get past a police line with his weapon slung over his shoulder and was not arrested that night. He turned himself in the next day.
– Michael Tarm, Scott Bauer, Amy Forliti, and Tammy Webber, AP