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The Kyle Rittenhouse Trial

November 22, 2021

Today's Wrap tackles a hot-button issue: the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. We take you through the details, outcome, and everything else you need to know.

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At 5:11 PM on August 23, 2020, a police dispatcher ordered officers to a neighborhood in Kenosha, Wisconsin, a city of 100,000 people. “Jacob Blake isn’t supposed to be there and he took the complainant’s keys and is refusing to give them back,” she said on a radio dispatch.

Police showed up soon after. Video from the scene shows 2 officers trying to keep Blake, who is black, on the ground. He stands up and walks over to the driver’s door of the van next to him. 2 officers, guns drawn, follow him as he opens it. Yelling ensues and Blake moves toward the car; 7 gunshots ring out. The shots struck Blake in the back, paralyzing him from the waist down.

Bystander footage of the shooting quickly went viral. In Kenosha, protesters began gathering at the sight of the shooting. The protests grew and became angrier and eventually violent. Rioters were soon battling police, and buildings were up in flames. It was almost 3 months to the day after a police officer killed George Floyd, setting off weeks of mass protests and unrest in cities across the US.

In Kenosha, the next day, August 24, began with protests and ended with riots that burned down dozens of businesses. That day, 17-yo Kyle Rittenhouse drove to work in Kenosha. Rittenhouse lived with his mother in Antioch, Illinois, 20 miles away on the Wisconsin-Illinois border. He worked as a lifeguard in Kenosha, where his father lived. He stayed the night in Kenosha with a friend, Dominick Black. In May, Black, then 18, had bought Rittenhouse a rifle, saying he would keep it at his stepfather's Kenosha home until Rittenhouse turned 18.

On August 25, Rittenhouse and Black went into downtown Kenosha. In the trial, Rittenhouse said it was because they “saw the damage” on social media while eating breakfast. Photos from the day show Rittenhouse among volunteers scrubbing graffiti off a courthouse.

Rittenhouse testified that the sons of the owner of a local car dealership had asked him to defend the dealership, which had been heavily damaged. The sons deny asking Rittenhouse for his help; other witnesses testified that they did. One of the brothers exchanged numbers with Rittenhouse, and a photo showed him posing with armed men at the dealership.

In an interview from that day, Rittenhouse said, “People are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business, and a part of my job is to also help people.”

When a curfew took effect at 8 PM, Rittenhouse and Black were at the dealership, where several other armed people had gathered. Rittenhouse brought his gun and first-aid supplies. There were crowds of protesters in the streets, but, according to Rittenhouse and videos, it was not violent. Rittenhouse ended up alone, and headed to another location where he said he was going to put out a fire.

As he was doing this, one man, Joseph Rosenbaum, began running toward Rittenhouse. Rittenhouse testified Rosenbaum had seen him earlier in the night and said, "If I catch you alone, I'm going to kill you." Rosenbaum had been released from a hospital that day following a suicide attempt. Rittenhouse ran away as Rosenbaum chased him, then turned and pointed his gun. Rosenbaum grabbed it; as he did so, Rittenhouse shot him 4 times, killing him.

Footage shows the shooting sending the crowd scrambling, and Rittenhouse running off. As he moves down the street, one man runs up from behind, hitting him with a skateboard; Rittenhouse stumbles to the ground. One man kicked Rittenhouse, who shot at him and missed. The man with the skateboard hits Rittenhouse with it again; Rittenhouse shot him in the chest, killing him. Soon after, another man holding a pistol approaches; Rittenhouse shoots him in the arm. That man later said he thought Rittenhouse was an active shooter.

From there, Rittenhouse ran to the car dealership and soon returned to his mom's home in Antioch, Illinois. He then turned himself in to the police. On August 27, he was charged with 5 felonies, including first-degree intentional homicide and attempted homicide.

The sequence of events above culminated last Friday, when a jury found him not guilty on all counts.

***

According to Wisconsin law, deadly force may be used if someone “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.”

Rittenhouse’s team argued that he acted in self-defense: He shot 3 people because they left him no choice, and he did not go into downtown Kenosha intending to kill anyone. They also argued that he did not do anything to provoke the need for self defense.

The prosecution summed up their argument like this: “You can’t claim self-defense for a danger that you create.” Had he not been there, regardless of what happened, 3 people would not have been shot. By walking around a tense area with a rifle, he created a danger.

As the case played out, though, it touched far broader issues.

On the right, people said his actions were a function of lawlessness: When there is no law and order, people will take the law into their own hands. Had the National Guard or police instilled order, Rittenhouse wouldn’t have been there. Some said he was doing his civic duty.

On the left, it touched issues of racism, given that the protests were about a white police officer shooting Jacob Blake (although Rittenhouse and the 3 people he shot were white); gun rights (“How is it legal for a 17-year-old to own a gun?”); vigilantism; militias; and criminal justice. Some said the judge slanted the case in Rittenhouse's favor, for example by enforcing his long-term courtroom ban on the use of the word “victim” or by excluding mention of a photo of Rittenhouse with members of the far-right Proud Boys militia (Rittenhouse’s lawyers said he didn’t know the men were Proud Boys).

Those longer debates will continue. But last Friday, after 4 days of deliberation, the 12 jurors decided unanimously that Kyle Rittenhouse was not guilty.

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