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Opinion Kyle Rittenhouse is acquitted, but his actions should not be excused or celebrated

Hannah Gittings, girlfriend of victim Anthony Huber, is embraced as she speaks to the media after the verdict in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wis., on Nov. 19. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)
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Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who fatally shot two people and wounded another amid protests and rioting over police conduct in August 2020 in Kenosha, Wis., has been found not guilty of all charges by a jury that seemed to accept his explanation that he acted in self-defense. The jury deliberated 26 hours over four days, and its verdict in a case that was both complex and polarizing must be respected. That, though, doesn’t mean that Mr. Rittenhouse’s actions should be excused or, as some are sadly wont to do, celebrated. Mr. Rittenhouse is not a hero but a hapless young man who armed himself with a gun he shouldn’t have had, foolishly put himself in a volatile situation where he had no business being, and ended up doing grievous and irreparable harm.

After a two-week trial, the jury of seven women and five men on Friday acquitted Mr. Rittenhouse on five felony counts, including homicide and attempted homicide, in connection with the shootings in August 2020 as Kenosha was gripped with unrest over the police shooting of a Black man. Mr. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, took to the streets of Kenosha armed with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle, ostensibly to protect businesses and provide medical assistance. He shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and injured Gaige Grosskreutz, who was 26 at the time. Mr. Rittenhouse took the stand to testify that he acted to protect himself.

The trial brought to the fore issues of vigilantism, racial injustice and guns, but the jury’s job was not to decide those heated questions but only to render a unanimous decision on each of the counts based solely on the evidence presented in court and adhering to the judge’s instructions. Wisconsin law, according to legal experts, is very favorable to a defendant claiming self-defense; the prosecution has to affirmatively disprove self-defense beyond any reasonable doubt. Mr. Rittenhouse, boyish and sobbing on the stand, came across as a sympathetic witness, and some of Judge Bruce E. Schroeder’s rulings seemed to favor the defense in questionable ways.

Eugene Robinson: Rittenhouse’s not-guilty verdict should not be a green light for other armed vigilantes

The parents of Huber, one of the victims (a word banned from the trial by Judge Schroeder), released a statement saying they were “heartbroken” and “angry,” and feared the message that is sent by the not-guilty verdicts. Their fear is well-founded. Mr. Rittenhouse has been embraced by conservative and right-wing groups. Republicans are falling over themselves to show their approval, with some even saying they want to hire him as a congressional intern. Millions of dollars were raised for his defense. Fox News has provided sympathetic, even fawning, coverage. After his arrest, Mr. Rittenhouse, wearing a shirt that said “Free as F---,” posed for pictures and was serenaded with the anthem of the Proud Boys — an incident the judge barred the jury from knowing about.

The worst outcome here would be for other hapless young men to think it is okay for them also to strap on weapons and play vigilante. Mr. Rittenhouse is innocent in the eyes of the law, but the fact remains: Had he not gone to Kenosha, the two people he killed would be alive today. And the ease with which, at the age of 17, he could get his hands on what amounts to a weapon of war underscores how ludicrous and lax are the gun laws in this country.