A jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse on Friday on all charges relating to his fatal shooting of two men and wounding of a third with a semi-automatic rifle during chaotic 2020 racial justice protests in Wisconsin, determining that the teenager acted in self-defense.
A 12-member jury found Rittenhouse, 18, not guilty on two counts of homicide, one count of attempted homicide and two counts of recklessly endangering safety during street protests marred by arson, rioting and looting on Aug. 25, 2020 in the working-class city of Kenosha.
Rittenhouse broke down sobbing after the verdict, which came shortly after the judge warned the courtroom to remain silent or be removed.
The jury deliberated for close to 3 1/2 days.
"The charges against (the) defendant on all counts are dismissed with prejudice and he's released from the obligation of his bond," Judge Bruce Schroeder told the court.
As he dismissed the jurors, Schroeder assured them the court would take “every measure” to keep them safe.
A sheriff’s deputy immediately whisked Rittenhouse out a back door through the judge’s chambers.
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 and began crying as the clerk read out the string of five not-guilty verdicts, hugging others around her.
Conservative leaders 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.”
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.”
President Joe Biden, who during last year's election campaign tweeted a video that appeared to link Rittenhouse to white supremacists, said on Friday he supported the jury's decision.
But elsewhere reaction showed deep partisan divisions. It was greeted with outrage by many on the political left and celebrated by gun rights supporters.
"It is unconscionable our justice system would allow an armed vigilante ... to go free," the Congressional Black Caucus said in a statement.
U.S. congressman Madison Cawthorn, a Republican representative from North Carolina, said on Instagram: "Kyle Rittenhouse is not guilty my friends. You have a right to defend yourselves. Be armed, be dangerous and be moral."
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.
The verdict comes 15 months after the Aug. 25, 2020, shooting, which left Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber dead and Gaige Grosskreutz injured. Rittenhouse, 18, has not disputed pulling the trigger in the shootings but consistently asserted he acted in self-defense, a claim seemingly backed up by multiple videos captured by news outlets and bystanders that showed Rittenhouse being attacked prior to firing the fatal shots.
He was arrested the day after the incident and charged with seven counts: first-degree reckless homicide in the death of Rosenbaum, first-degree intentional homicide in the death of Huber, attempted first-degree intentional homicide in the shooting of Grosskreutz, two counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18 and failure to comply with an emergency order from a state or local government. The latter two charges were dismissed by Judge Bruce Schroeder before the jury began deliberating.
The Rittenhouse case immediately took on political and racial overtones.
Rittenhouse’s use of a Smith & Wesson MP-15 – a weapon described by The Associated Press as “an AR-style semi-automatic rifle” – was seized on by anti-gun crusaders who cast the Kenosha killings as needless, while Second Amendment advocates rushed to Rittenhouse’s defense.
The incident also occurred amid several days of rioting and unrest in Kenosha after the Aug. 23, 2020, police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man armed with a knife, who was wanted on sexual assault and domestic abuse allegations.
That shooting gained increased prominence as it occurred fewer than three months after the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody, an incident which set off a string of protests and riots nationwide. The video of Blake’s shooting was disseminated widely – though many facts of the case were not yet public – and soon demonstrators, activists and Antifa members poured into the community.
The night before the Rittenhouse incident, several businesses had been looted and set on fire in Kenosha amid a sparse police presence, a situation that led some who were opposed to the violence to fill the void and attempt to provide protection for local store owners.
Rittenhouse, then 17 and from nearby Antioch, Illinois, traveled with a friend to Kenosha, where Rittenhouse’s father lived, to help protect a local car dealership and provide medical aid to anyone in need. Rittenhouse can be seen in videos taken before the shooting offering medical aid and he also told a Daily Caller reporter: “Part of my job is also to help people. If there is somebody hurt, I'm running into harm's way. That's why I have my rifle because I have to protect myself, obviously. I also have my med kit.”
Rittenhouse’s trial began on Nov. 2 and prosecutors sought to portray Rittenhouse as a wannabe police officer who set off the deadly confrontations by pointing his gun at protesters and then firing his weapon despite facing no imminent deadly threat. That was undermined when Grosskreutz testified that he was shot only after having moved toward Rittenhouse while pointing a pistol at him.
Rittenhouse took the stand on Nov. 10 and broke down crying while he recounted the events of Aug. 25, 2020. He denied any intent to kill and said he only fired his weapon to ward off being attacked.
During Rittenhouse’s cross-examination, prosecutor Thomas Binger was repeatedly chastised by the judge; one exchange involved Rittenhouse’s Fifth Amendment right to silence, in which Schroeder accused Binger of a “grave constitutional violation.”
Material from Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this story.
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