Authorities charged Kyle Rittenhouse with two counts of homicide and one count of attempted homicide. Demonstrators have hailed the victims as heroes who died trying to disarm a vigilante who was targeting them. But Rittenhouse’s legal defense team, composed of lawyers known for backing conservative causes célèbres, have said his actions were justified because he feared for his life and shot in self-defense. Many on the political right are saluting the armed teen for rushing into a city beset by vandalism and unrest.
The competing narratives are playing out in news coverage, on social media and in city streets, highlighting the extent of Americans’ political divide and the growing severity of the nation’s culture war. While many point out that Rittenhouse has been charged with illegally carrying a gun because of his age, “Back the Blue” protesters in Kenosha on Sunday applauded him for stepping in where they say city leaders were falling short.
“I’m sad that a 17-year-old felt that he needed to come out here and protect us,” said Kenosha resident Tamara Weber, 51.
A GoFundMe campaign for protester Gaige Grosskreutz, who was wounded in the encounter with Rittenhouse, has raised more than $43,000 for his medical bills. And another has raised nearly $150,000 for Anthony Huber, who was killed. The same site removed a fundraiser for Rittenhouse last week, but a Christian crowdsourcing site has raised nearly $250,000 for Rittenhouse’s legal fees from donors who call him “courageous” and “a patriot.”
“It’s like a funhouse mirror,” said Cecelia Klingele, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School. “People look at the same facts and have wildly different reactions. It is troubling because when people are having such different reactions, I guess tragedies like this shouldn’t be a surprise. People are afraid of each other and that is a situation that creates danger for everyone.”
The conflicting interpretations of the case are fueled by murky details about who fired the first shot and other key factors in the encounter, as well as the state’s broad legal standard for self-defense. Wisconsin, unlike some other states home to high-profile self-defense cases, does not have a “stand-your-ground law,” which absolves armed people of an obligation to retreat when threatened. Instead, Klingele said, a Wisconsin court will determine whether Rittenhouse reasonably judged the danger he faced and used an appropriate level of force in responding — a standard that can be highly subjective.
“People’s divergent reactions suggest that there’s a question here about whether the defendant acted reasonably in self-defense,” Klingele said. “It doesn’t surprise me that self-defense is being raised, but whether it will be successful is an open question.”
Rittenhouse, whose social media feeds displayed a deep affinity for the police, traveled 20 miles from his home in Antioch, Ill., to Kenosha, where many armed men had appointed themselves defenders of property and dispensers of first aid. Rittenhouse came armed with a rifle and a first-aid kit, and spent the day cleaning graffiti at a high school, his attorneys said, and then milling around with other armed men and being interviewed by reporters at night. In one video interview, Rittenhouse rapidly blinks his eyes, saying he had been pepper-sprayed by someone in the crowd. In another, he interacts with law enforcement driving by in armored vehicles, raising his hand as they ask if he and the other armed men need water.
“We appreciate you guys. We really do,” an officer says from the vehicle as a water bottle is tossed out.
Standing in front of a boarded-up building as he spoke to Daily Caller reporter Richie McGinniss, Rittenhouse said in a video interview, “Our job is to protect this business.”
“If there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way,” he said. “That’s why I have my rifle because I need to protect myself obviously.”
According to a statement from the law firm Pierce Bainbridge, which is representing Rittenhouse, the teen heard the owner of a downtown auto dealership had called for help protecting his businesses, which had been damaged in the unrest. While walking to stand guard at one of the mechanic’s shops, Rittenhouse encountered a group of protesters, according to the firm’s statement.
Parts of the chaotic, deadly moments that followed were captured in a panoply of bystander videos, witnessed by Washington Post reporters and detailed in the criminal complaint against Rittenhouse, along with a lengthy statement from his attorneys.
A few minutes before midnight, video shows Rittenhouse running through the parking lot of a used car dealership off Sheridan Road, just south of downtown Kenosha. He’s trailed by a man whom authorities identified as Joseph “Jojo” Rosenbaum, a 36-year-old Texas transplant. Rosenbaum throws what appears to be a plastic bag that lands well short of Rittenhouse. Running behind parked vehicles, the camera loses sight of the chase before, seconds later, shots are heard. It’s unclear who fired them.
In the statement defending its client, Pierce described protesters as “a mob” that was “determined to hurt” Rittenhouse because he was protecting a business they sought to deface. He said Rittenhouse heard a gunshot behind him, turned and saw Rosenbaum “lunging toward him and reaching for his rifle.”
But the complaint filed by Kenosha County prosecutors said Rosenbaum was unarmed when he reached for Rittenhouse’s weapon. McGinniss, who was near the two, told investigators Rosenbaum looked like he was trying to grab the barrel of the gun.
Rittenhouse shot Rosenbaum at least five times, killing him, according to an autopsy report cited in the complaint.
While McGinnis performed first aid on Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse used his cellphone to make a call, prosecutors said. As he’s seen running from the scene in a video, he says into the phone, “I shot somebody.”
Rittenhouse fled north on Sheridan Road, one of the city’s main thoroughfares, past throngs of people on the street and sidewalks, according to video, as people yelled, “Get that dude!” and “He shot him!” Rittenhouse stumbled and fell to the ground, then took aim at the people pursuing him. Several people hit him or tried to disarm him as he was on the ground.
The law firm statement described Rittenhouse as “in fear for his life.”
One man, identified as Huber, 26, swung at Rittenhouse with his skateboard while trying to wrest the gun from the teen’s hands, prosecutors said. Rittenhouse shot Huber once in the chest and killed him, the complaint states. He then shot a third man — Gaige Grosskreutz, who was holding a handgun, the complaint says — striking him in the right arm.
Grosskreutz, a 26-year-old protester, was hospitalized and is expected to recover from a gunshot wound. His attorney, Kimberley Motley, declined to answer questions about Grosskreutz’s alleged gun but said he was “not trying to attack” Rittenhouse.
Motley criticized local law enforcement’s conduct that night, saying police officers, who were captured on video giving Rittenhouse water and thanking the armed men with him, emboldened the teen before he opened fire.
“They were absolutely complicit with what happened to my client,” Motley said of the officers. “My client was a peaceful protester. My client did not deserve to be shot. Point blank. Period.”
After the shootings, video shows Rittenhouse walking toward a group of police vehicles with his hands raised as someone yells, “Hey, he just shot them!” The officers did not arrest him. Rittenhouse returned to Antioch and later turned himself in, according to his attorneys.
“Kyle did nothing wrong,” said Pierce, which has defended President Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Trump adviser Carter Page. “He exercised his God-given, Constitutional, common law and statutory law right to self-defense.”
Porche Bennett, a Kenosha activist, told the Kenosha News that both Huber and Rosenbaum had attended demonstrations since May, when George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis.
“They came out here every time with us,” Bennett said. “Sweet. Loving. They were the sweetest hearts, souls.”
Rosenbaum was originally from Waco, Tex., and he moved to Kenosha in the last year to be closer to his fiancee and daughter, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported.
Fellow protesters say Huber died trying to save their lives. An avid skater, the Silver Lake resident swung his board at Rittenhouse to stop him from shooting at those around him, his girlfriend, Hannah Gittings, told local news media.
“It is just a true testament to what kind of person he was,” she said an interview last week with the radio station WBBM.
Huber, who lived about 15 miles west of Kenosha, left behind a stepdaughter, according to an online fundraiser for Gittings and his family.
A native of West Allis, 30 miles north of Kenosha, Grosskreutz is involved with the social justice group People’s Revolution Movement of Milwaukee, according to the Journal Sentinel. A woman who attended the first two nights of Kenosha protests with him told The Post he was volunteering as a medic.
“He’s always been someone who’d help out his friends and give them the shirt off his back if he has one,” Patti Wenzel, a family friend, said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times.
Rittenhouse’s criminal case will probably proceed slower because of the coronavirus pandemic, legal experts said. He’ll be tried as an adult, but he is currently being held in an Illinois juvenile facility, local media report. He must first be extradited to Wisconsin, which won’t happen until at least Sept. 25, Pierce said.
If his attorneys take the case to trial — and Pierce says it intends to — it may turn on the voluminous video evidence and the jury’s interpretation of it, said Abbe Smith, a law professor at Georgetown University who has been a criminal defense lawyer for more 30 years and is skeptical of Rittenhouse’s case.
“Every once in a while the crime is clearly depicted on video, but often it’s subject to interpretation,” Smith said. “Video is like a Rorschach test. Everybody sees something different. People see what they want to see.”
Kim Bellware, Robert Klemko and Mark Guarino in Kenosha, Wis., and Mark Berman, Elyse Samuels, Jennifer Jenkins and Griff Witte in Washington contributed to this report.