Updated: Nov 30, 2021
Kyle Rittenhouse (left) listens to his defence attorney Mark Richards (right) as he takes the stand during his trial.
Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old accused of fatally shooting two men and injuring a third during racial justice protests in the Wisconsin city of Kenosha on 25 August 2020, was acquitted of all charges on 20 November 2021. How can it be that U.S. laws permit a teenager to bypass criminal liability after he travels from out of state to a scene of civil unrest, violates a curfew specifically designed to keep people off the streets, and illegally carries with him an assault weapon that results in deadly harm?
The Rittenhouse case has become a flashpoint in the U.S. debate over guns, racial justice protests, vigilantism, and law and order.
After deliberating for three and a half days, the jury cleared Rittenhouse of homicide, attempted homicide, and reckless endangerment in the deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, as well as the wounding of Gaige Grosskreutz, 28.
Prosecutors and defence attorneys presented radically dichotomous depictions of Rittenhouse’s actions and motivations. Richards, the defence attorney, described him as “a 17-year-old kid out there trying to help this community”. The characterization of Rittenhouse was a familiar one: that he was a civic-minded teenager with good intentions, trapped in a no-win situation after being targeted by rioters. Bingers, the prosecutor, stated:
"When the defendant provokes this incident, he loses the right to self-defence. You cannot claim self-defense against a danger you create."
Rittenhouse, 17 at the time of the incident, persuaded a friend to buy an AR-15-style rifle—a semi-automatic weapon which he was too young to buy—and keep it on his behalf. On 25 August 2020, he and that friend, Dominick Black, took their rifles to Kenosha and volunteered to help defend a local car dealership from protests, which had started after the Kenosha police shot a black man, Jacob Blake, seven times, paralysing him from the waist down.
Rittenhouse on the night of the shooting.
In Wisconsin, using a rifle to defend yourself is legal and there is no duty to retreat. A person may use deadly force if he or she “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm”. To get a conviction on the most serious charge, intentional homicide, which would bring a life sentence, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Rittenhouse intended to kill or injure the people he shot at. When a defendant claims self-defence, as Rittenhouse did, the prosecution also bears the burden of proving beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant did not act in self-defence—that he did not reasonably believe it was necessary to protect himself from great harm. As indicated by the verdict, the prosecution was not able to meet this burden.
Note that ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ in a court of law means that the prosecution must convince the jury that there is no other reasonable explanation that can come from the evidence presented at trial. In other words, the jury must be virtually certain of the defendant’s guilt in order to render a guilty verdict.
Charges Carried By the Prosecutors
1. First-degree intentional homicide.
Rittenhouse faced this charge in connection with the fatal shooting of Huber. The crime, analogous to first-degree murder in other states, is defined as causing the death of another human being with intent to kill that person or someone else, and carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
2. Attempted first-degree intentional homicide.
Rittenhouse faced this charge in connection with the shooting of Grosskreutz, who was shot and wounded.
3. First-degree reckless homicide.
Rittenhouse was accused of this crime in connection with the fatal shooting of Rosenbaum. Under Wisconsin law, this crime is defined as recklessly causing death under circumstances that show utter disregard for human life.
4. Reckless endangerment of safety (two counts).
Rittenhouse was charged with recklessly endangering two people who, according to the criminal complaint, had shots fired toward them but were not hit: Richard McGinnis and an unknown male seen in video footage presented by the prosecution.
5. Carrying a firearm illegally as a minor.
Judge Bruce Schroeder dismissed this charge prior to closing arguments, agreeing with a defence argument that Rittenhouse was not technically prohibited under a strict reading of Wisconsin state law from carrying the particular type of weapon he used, even though he was 17 at the time of the shootings, which makes the possession illegal.
The Smith & Wesson AR-style semiautomatic rifle carried by Rittenhouse.
Rittenhouse took the stand a week before the verdict and tearfully insisted that he had fired only to defend himself. Prosecutors have argued that Rittenhouse committed murder, pointing to the fact that while there was unrest on the streets of Kenosha that night, “the only person that killed anyone was the defendant”.
Rittenhouse broke down in tears at one point in his testimony.
Under cross-examination, Rittenhouse was pressed on the risk that Rosenbaum posed when Rittenhouse shot and killed him. Rosenbaum was unarmed, but had thrown a plastic bag of objects towards Rittenhouse and had chased him. Rosenbaum had been discharged from the hospital after a suicide attempt a few hours before his death, according to The Washington Post.
The defence further argued that at the moment Rittenhouse fired his gun, he was in immediate and urgent danger, because he was being chased and attacked by Rosenbaum. Rittenhouse claimed on the stand that he only fired the first shots when he felt a hand on his gun, and that: “If I would have let Mr Rosenbaum take my firearm from me, he would have used it and killed me with it and probably killed more people”. Within the video evidence presented in court, Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse then threw a plastic bag at him. Shortly after, Rittenhouse fatally shoots Rosenbaum. "I didn't do anything wrong. I defended myself," Rittenhouse added.
The subsequent shots, on Huber and Grosskreutz respectively, were legally justified on the basis that Rittenhouse was being attacked by a “mob” and that his gun risked being stolen and used against him.
Huber was shot by Rittenhouse after attempting to disarm him by hitting him with a skateboard. Grosskreutz, a medic who carried a pistol, was shot in the arm by Rittenhouse after following him down the street as he fled from the scene of Rosenbaum’s death. Grosskreutz testified that he had run in the direction of gunfire, intending to treat anyone who had been injured by the shooting.
Grosskreutz talked about the lasting damage to his arm after being shot by Rittenhouse, as he testified at the Kenosha County Courthouse.
This video clip used by the prosecution (play from 3:20) depicts the second shooting, that of Huber and Grosskreutz, which took place shortly after the shooting of Rosenbaum.
Bruce Schroeder, the judge, forbade the jury from being told about Rittenhouse commenting several weeks earlier that he wanted to “start shooting rounds” at shoplifters. Neither were they allowed to see his engagement with the Proud Boys, a far-right nationalist and neo-fascist group that engages and promotes political violence in the U.S., after he was released on bail.
Implications of the Verdict
Some left-leaning politicians in the U.S. decry the Rittenhouse case as an indictment of the U.S. criminal justice system which epitomizes the disparate way that white and black killers are treated in a court of law. Both victims were white but because their deaths happened during protests sparked by the police shooting of an unarmed black man, Jacob Blake, it is being seen as a case emblematic of the racial disparity that pervades the U.S. criminal justice system. Rittenhouse has been described as a “domestic terrorist” by some Democratic politicians and actors: few think that a black shooter would have survived doing what he did. They argue that the acquittal could embolden others to take similar vigilante-style approaches to anti-racism protests and political activists in the future by giving them a legal precedent to take up arms against anyone they consider a threat.
On the other hand, some right-leaning politicians see this case as an affirmation of the Second Amendment, solidifying one’s right to bear arms for the preservation of life and sees the incident as a clear-cut case of self-defence. Donald Trump “congratulated” Rittenhouse on the verdict and put out a brief statement that read: “If that’s not self-defense, nothing is!” The National Rifle Association added to the support of this verdict, proclaiming that a “well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.” Though unlikely to occur, Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene introduced a bill this week to award Rittenhouse the Congressional Gold Medal. This is Congress’ highest honour that must be co-sponsored by two-thirds of the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate and then authorized by the president. If the bill passes, Rittenhouse will join a list of recipients including Martin Luther King Jr., Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela.
Ferzan, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania stated that the Rittenhouse case raises broader questions about whether laws should revoke a person’s right to self-defence if they act recklessly to provoke someone or bring a weapon to a potentially heated situation. Ferzan said:
“What we should take away from this verdict ... is that we need to think seriously about whether citizens should be entitled to go on the offence in our name — to bring weapons and seek to enforce laws — when we know that such actions may themselves be the trigger of violence and death.”
Considering the fact that law is an evolving discipline, are cases like the Rittenhouse case, an indication that some legal reform is required? If the current law allows vigilantism and killings to go unpunished and rather emboldens such actions by granting legal precedents, is the law upholding its core principle of justice?