Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who fatally shot two people last year during unrest in Kenosha, Wis., offered his first extended public defense in the bitterly divisive case on Wednesday, at one point breaking down on the witness stand.
Rittenhouse, 18, is charged with homicide and attempted homicide for shooting three people, killing two of them, during the mayhem consuming Kenosha after a police shooting in August 2020. He has pleaded not guilty.
Testifying in a courtroom just blocks from where he opened fire, Rittenhouse choked with emotion and struggled to speak when he started describing the first fatal confrontation, prompting Schroeder to stop the testimony and give Rittenhouse a break.
When he resumed, Rittenhouse said the shootings left him in shock and that he only opened fire to protect himself.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” said Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time of the shootings. “I defended myself.”
The shootings became a nationwide flash point, with the teenager praised as a hero by many on the far right and pilloried as a villain by social justice activists. The opposing narratives have played out in court, with prosecutors painting Rittenhouse as a violent aggressor, while his attorneys say the teen was defending himself while under attack.
Rittenhouse testified to his mind-set, saying he felt under attack the night of Aug. 25, 2020, when he shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26. He also shot and injured Gaige Grosskreutz, then 26.
Rittenhouse recalled feeling “cornered,” saying Rosenbaum and Huber pursued him and grabbed his gun, prompting him to open fire. Rittenhouse then shot Grosskreutz, he said, when that man lunged forward while pointing a gun at him.
“I didn’t want to have to kill anybody that night,” Rittenhouse said.
Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha from his home in Antioch, Ill., about 20 miles away, heading into a city rocked by demonstrations and rioting after a White police officer shot Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man. He was among many armed people who went to Kenosha in response to footage of property destruction that was circulating widely on television and online.
His trial has been dominated by footage and still images, some of them graphic, from the night Rittenhouse encountered and shot the three men.
On Wednesday, the proceedings were repeatedly overtaken by acrimony in the courtroom. Schroeder admonished prosecutor Thomas C. Binger several times, loudly and sharply rebuking the attorney. Schroeder has come under public scrutiny for decisions he has made in the case, including for his move to prohibit calling the men who were shot “victims.”
At one point on Wednesday, he grew angry with Binger for questioning Rittenhouse about not speaking publicly on the shootings until his testimony, saying he was impugning Rittenhouse’s right to remain silent. In another heated moment, Schroeder reprimanded Binger for what he viewed as the prosecutor’s attempt to discuss a matter that the judge had prohibited twice, including earlier the same day.
Rittenhouse’s defense attorneys said they would move to have a mistrial declared because of the prosecution’s perceived overreaches, though Schroeder didn’t make a decision on that suggestion.
Tom Grieve, a Milwaukee-based defense attorney, said it was unusual for the defense to seek a mistrial if it appears to be winning a case — and this case, he said, appears to be going Rittenhouse’s way.
“I thought it would be better to be the defense. I didn’t think it would be this much better to be the defense,” Grieve said of the case.
He pointed to previous testimony from Richie McGinness, a videographer for the conservative Daily Caller, who was close by when Rittenhouse shot Rosenbaum. McGinness testified that Rosenbaum had chased Rittenhouse and went for his gun.
“I don’t want to say that’s as bad as you can get for the prosecutor, but that’s about as bad as you can get,” Grieve said.
Rittenhouse’s testimony on Wednesday was the first time he spoke at length in public about what happened. He has discussed some elements of the case before, telling The Washington Post in an interview last year that he did not regret having a gun that night, saying: “I feel I had to protect myself. I would have died that night if I didn’t.”
In moments that have been dissected throughout the trial, Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse down a street and flung a plastic bag the hospital gave him toward Rittenhouse. A gunshot rang out nearby. Rosenbaum tried to grab Rittenhouse’s rifle and the teenager opened fire, killing him.
On Wednesday in court, Rittenhouse described feeling as though Rosenbaum was “coming at me” and had “his hand on the barrel of my gun.” At that point, Rittenhouse said, he opened fire.
Rittenhouse testified that after shooting Rosenbaum, he fled toward police. He said he recalled hearing people shouting, “Get him, kill him,” and recounted running toward police seeking safety.
Other people began pursuing Rittenhouse after the first shooting, including Huber, who swung a skateboard at him. The teenager shot Huber in the chest, killing him.
Grosskreutz, then 26, was also following Rittenhouse, and as he approached with his gun drawn, Rittenhouse fired a shot into his right arm, pulverizing his biceps.
Rittenhouse said he fired at Grosskreutz when the other man lunged forward “with his pistol pointed directly at my head.”
Grosskreutz testified Monday that he never intended to shoot Rittenhouse, but acknowledged that Rittenhouse shot him only when he was approaching the teenager with his gun pointed at him.
In his testimony, Rittenhouse described his desire to promptly go to police after the shootings, which appeared to contrast with testimony last week from Dominick Black, the friend who bought Rittenhouse the gun he used that night.
Black testified that he drove Rittenhouse back to Antioch after the shootings and said the teenager’s family suggested fleeing town, possibly to Michigan or West Virginia. Black said he lobbied for Rittenhouse to instead turn himself in to police.
Rittenhouse’s testimony on Wednesday did not mention any discussions about leaving town. Instead, he said he later turned himself in to police in Antioch. He was not taken into custody or handcuffed, Rittenhouse said, but allowed to stay in the lobby until detectives showed up. Rittenhouse said he “was vomiting and having panic attacks” at the time.
According to police records, while in the police lobby, Rittenhouse said he “ended a man’s life” and “shot two White kids.”
The most tense exchange Wednesday came late in the afternoon when Binger, the assistant district attorney, had Rittenhouse walk through the shootings of all three men. In each instance, Rittenhouse circled back to his refrain that he had to pull the trigger, having no choice while under attack.
But Binger stretched each shooting out with his questioning, using video stills to illustrate the deadly encounters and suggesting, again and again, that Rittenhouse was the real threat that night.
Binger noted that Rittenhouse had told an interviewer earlier in the night that he was an emergency medical technician, which is untrue, but did not stop to help the people he shot. Rittenhouse said he wanted to help, but that the crowd was screaming and chasing him.
The prosecutor also emphasized that only Grosskreutz was armed, saying that in all the encounters Rittenhouse had, no one else fired a shot at him.
Rittenhouse said that he worried Rosenbaum would take his gun and use it on the teenager and others, growing emotional when arguing he “didn’t want to have to shoot him.”
“I pointed my gun at him and that did not deter him,” Rittenhouse said of Rosenbaum. “He could’ve ran away instead of trying to take my gun from me. But he kept chasing me.”
After Rittenhouse denied that he intended to kill Huber, Binger asked: “When you pulled the trigger … what did you think would happen?”
“He would no longer be a threat to my safety,” Rittenhouse replied.
Binger answered: “Because he would be dead. Your only concern was for your own safety, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Rittenhouse said.
Schroeder, the judge, said he expects the trial to conclude early next week.
Guarino reported from Chicago. Kim Bellware contributed to this report.