The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kyle Rittenhouse’s homicide trial begins this week, pitting claims of self-defense against accusations of vigilantism

A Washington Post examination of video and police records, along with other documents, sheds new light on the mindsets of the two people principally involved. (Video: Robert O'Harrow , Joyce Lee, Elyse Samuels/TWP)
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The homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse — the teenager who killed two people and injured a third last year amid the unrest that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis. — is set to begin Monday, the culmination of a polarizing case that rallied far-right groups and came to symbolize the country’s bitterly entrenched divisions.

Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time of the shootings, faces two homicide charges and an attempted homicide charge along with a misdemeanor for possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18. He has pleaded not guilty on all counts. If convicted guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, Rittenhouse faces a sentence of life in prison.

The case is a political powder keg, pulling together several explosive issues that defined a year of violence, protest and extremism in the United States. Rittenhouse was among the wave of armed civilians who descended on Kenosha in August 2020, saying they wanted to patrol streets and guard businesses after peaceful demonstrations there gave way to nightly riots in response to the police-shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man.

After the shootings, the armed teen walked toward police with his arms raised, video footage shows, only to be allowed to return to his home 20 miles away in Illinois. Rittenhouse later turned himself in amid an outcry and accusations that law enforcement had effectively deputized him and other armed civilians, fueling volatility in the city and laying the groundwork for the deadly encounters.

Rittenhouse, now 18, has been lauded as a hero by many on the political right, with conservative supporters and celebrities funding the $2 million needed for his bail in November. Weeks after his release, the teen was seen posing for pictures at a Wisconsin bar with members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group with a history of violence.

The case “represents that clash of our polarized politics,” said Keith A. Findley, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin.

“It’s not your run-of-the-mill case,” he said. Rittenhouse is “a darling of the far right, so he’s getting all kinds of support and accolades and encouragement that most people charged with murder don’t get. And he’s also getting lots of public vilification from the other side that most people don’t. Most murder cases are handled in relative obscurity.”

The trial begins with jury selection on Monday. Rittenhouse’s lawyers are expected to argue that he was attacked and acted in self-defense. Prosecutors have called him a “teenage vigilante.” Prosecutors and one of Rittenhouse’s defense attorneys both declined interview requests for this story.

How two men’s paths crossed in an encounter that has divided the nation

Despite the case’s broader notoriety, experts said the legal issues involved are not complicated. The trial, they said, boils down to a relatively simple question: Will jurors accept Rittenhouse’s self-defense claims?

To substantiate self-defense for each shooting, jurors will have to decide if “Mr. Rittenhouse reasonably believed that if he didn’t fire his gun, really bad things were going to happen to him,” said Jeremiah Meyer-O’Day, a former public defender not part of Rittenhouse’s defense. They also have to find that he did not provoke an attack, he added.

In Wisconsin, a defendant claiming self-defense in a homicide must show that they believed force was necessary to stop or prevent “interference” with themselves and that they faced death or great bodily harm when using deadly force, said Christopher Zachar, a criminal defense lawyer and former assistant state public defender.

Self-defense in those circumstances requires showing that you “used the force that was necessary,” Zachar said.

Fourteen months after this lakefront city became the epicenter of the country’s reckoning with race and policing, the community will host a trial borne of that movement but separate from it. No police officers face any charges. Instead, a White civilian is charged with shooting three other White civilians.

Rittenhouse’s trial will unfold in tandem with two other cases confronting similarly charged moments, creating an unusual split-screen examination of the nation’s racial wounds. The murder trial of three White men charged with killing Ahmaud Arbery, a Black man, is underway in Georgia, as is a civil trial in Charlottesville, focused on the white supremacist demonstrations there in 2017.

The Rittenhouse trial “is part of a whole series of acts of violence that have gotten a lot of public attention in recent years, either police using violence, or in this case, somebody who’s not a police officer but who is purporting to represent law and order in the same way a police officer might,” said Michael O’Hear, a law professor at Marquette University.

“This case, I think, kind of resonates in some of the same ways as George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and all of these other things that we’ve been fixated on in public discussion and news coverage in recent years,” he said.

Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse’s new merchandise site signals ‘new era’ of criminal defense

Demonstrations over policing and racial justice exploded from coast to coast after George Floyd was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis in May. It was against this backdrop that Rusten Sheskey, a White police officer in Kenosha, encountered Blake during a domestic disturbance call on Aug. 23, 2020.

Sheskey shot Blake repeatedly in the back during the encounter. Michael Graveley, the Kenosha County district attorney, would later say that Blake resisted police, was armed with an open knife and had previous charges relating to domestic violence and sexual assault. Graveley declined to bring charges against Sheskey, as did federal authorities.

But that came months later. In the immediate aftermath of the Blake shooting, protesters marched in Kenosha and across the country, while professional athletes refused to play NBA, WNBA and Major League Baseball games.

In Kenosha, calm demonstrations during the day were followed by spasms of strife at night. Footage of burning buildings and other damage rapidly spread across social media and cable news, drawing a flock of gun-toting civilians into the city, some pledging to provide security for businesses and homes.

On Aug. 25, two days after Blake was shot, Rittenhouse joined the scene. He brandished his medical kit to journalists, saying he was providing first aid and guarding property. He had his gun, the teenager said, “to protect myself, obviously.” Rittenhouse would later tell The Washington Post in an interview that he did not regret having his gun, because, “I would have died that night if I didn’t.”

The trial is likely to focus on the seconds leading up to each time Rittenhouse pulled the trigger that night, experts said. The bloodshed came from a collision of unlikely sources: Rittenhouse encountered Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, who had been released from a hospital earlier that day following a suicide attempt; Anthony Huber, 26, a dedicated skater who knew Blake; and Gaige Grosskreutz, then 26, who frequently attended protests and had medical equipment and a gun.

During the pivotal, frenzied moments, Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse down the street as a gunshot rang out nearby. Rosenbaum threw a plastic bag he had received from the hospital in Rittenhouse’s direction, but missed. Rosenbaum tried to grab the teen’s rifle, and Rittenhouse opened fire.

A mentally ill man, a heavily armed teenager and the night Kenosha burned

More people began following Rittenhouse, including Huber, who was carrying his skateboard, and Grosskreutz, who pulled out his weapon.

When Rittenhouse fell to the ground, he fired at one man and missed; Huber approached, swinging his skateboard toward Rittenhouse, who fired into his chest. The autopsy said the bullet perforated Huber’s heart and right lung. Huber’s father called him a hero trying to stop “an active shooter [who] tried to flee.” When Grosskreutz moved forward, Rittenhouse fired a bullet that took a chunk out of his right arm.

Rittenhouse faces six charges related to the shootings, including first-degree intentional homicide for shooting Huber, the count that carries a possible life sentence, and first-degree reckless homicide for shooting Rosenbaum. Rittenhouse is also charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide for shooting Grosskreutz, two counts of recklessly endangering the safety of others and being too young to possess his weapon. In addition, he faces a charge of violating the curfew imposed in Kenosha at the time.

Videos from Aug. 25 show Kyle Rittenhouse, who was charged with first-degree homicide, interacting with law enforcement before and after the shootings. (Video: Elyse Samuels, Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

According to police records made public later, when Rittenhouse turned himself in, he cried and vomited in a police station’s lobby, saying he “ended a man’s life” and “shot two White kids.”

An attorney for Rittenhouse, who later withdrew from the case, released a statement not long after the shootings saying his client went to Kenosha to stand guard, “deter property damage and use his training to provide first aid to injured community members.” John Pierce, the attorney, said Rittenhouse “did nothing wrong” and “exercised his God-given, constitutional, common law and statutory law right to self-defense.”

Rittenhouse’s attorneys have not said publicly whether he will testify, but a person familiar with the legal team’s strategy expects him to take the stand.

While defense lawyers generally prefer to avoid having clients testify, self-defense cases are exceptions, since such cases can turn on what was in a defendant’s mind when they opened fire, said Julius Kim, a criminal defense lawyer and a former Milwaukee County assistant district attorney.

“Truly there’s no one better to explain why they did what they did than a defendant,” he said.

Ahmaud Arbery’s killing in Georgia puts an unusually bright spotlight on prosecutor accountability

The legal proceedings have already drawn public scrutiny ahead of the trial’s start. Last week, Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder reiterated in court that the three men who were shot could not be called “victims,” calling it a loaded word. Defense attorneys in Wisconsin said they regularly made the same request, describing it as routine but not always granted.

Schroeder also said the men who were shot can be called “rioters” or “looters” if the defense can prove they were, which prosecutors described as more loaded, since two of them are dead and unable to defend themselves.

In Kenosha, meanwhile, Rittenhouse’s trial is not the only legal fallout from the shootings. Huber’s family and Grosskreutz have both filed lawsuits against the city and other officials over how Rittenhouse was treated.

On the eve of Rittenhouse’s trial, few signs of last year’s chaos were visible in the city’s downtown. Gone were steel barriers and any traces of broken windows; bars and cafes were humming with patrons on a recent rainy evening.

In the Uptown neighborhood, by comparison, some things appear frozen in time. Home to many of the city’s Black and Latino residents, Uptown was already struggling from years of underinvestment when rioters came through the streets last year.

The rubble around burned-down buildings mostly has been cleared, but the commercial stretch along 22nd Avenue remains dotted with empty businesses and boarded-up storefronts that still bear last year’s optimistic message of “Kenosha Strong.”

The county sheriff’s office plans to have a larger law enforcement presence around the courthouse during the trial and is “prepared” if there are issues, said spokesman Sgt. David Wright.

Daniel Thompson, who resigned from the Kenosha News last year to protest a headline he said inaccurately depicted a rally organized by Blake’s family by focusing on one incendiary remark at a peaceful event, says those who covered the shootings or protested last year felt drained by what they see as inaction from the city and the overheated rhetoric around Rittenhouse.

Thompson said he feels that support for Blake has declined in the community after Graveley’s report made his actions appear less sympathetic than demonstrators had believed. And a year later, he said, the community is still recovering from what happened.

“You want everything you went through to mean something, but nothing has changed,” Thompson said. “Now we’re drained. Kenosha as a city is traumatized, and we don’t want to talk about it.”

Bellware reported from Kenosha, Wis.

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