Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old who fatally shot two people during the unrest last year in Kenosha, Wis., has been acquitted of all charges in a criminal trial that divided the nation over questions about gun rights, violence at racial justice protests and vigilantism.
The verdict, delivered Friday, follows a highly watched trial in which prosecutors struggled to overcome Rittenhouse's claim that he acted in self-defense on the night of the shootings.
"He has a huge sense of relief for what the jury did to him today. He wishes none of this would have ever happened, but as he said when he testified, he did not start this," said Rittenhouse's defense attorney Mark Richards, speaking to reporters outside the courthouse. "To say that we're relieved would be a gross misunderstatement."
In two weeks of testimony and evidence — led by a daylong turn on the stand by Rittenhouse himself — defense attorneys were able to convince the jury of 12 that the night of Aug. 25, 2020, was filled with deadly peril for the then-17-year-old.
Jurors deliberated for roughly 27 hours over the course of four days before pronouncing Rittenhouse not guilty on all five counts: first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree attempted intentional homicide and two counts of first-degree reckless endangerment. The jury was also asked to consider lesser versions of several counts, but were not swayed.
"While we are disappointed with the verdict, it must be respected. We are grateful to the members of the jury for their diligent and thoughtful deliberations," said the Kenosha County District Attorney's Office in a statement. "We ask that members of our community continue to express their opinions and feelings about this verdict in a civil and peaceful manner."
Prosecutors declined to give further comment.
A chaotic night of unrest in Kenosha turns deadly
Rittenhouse armed himself with an AR-15-style rifle on a night of unrest in Kenosha sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was left paralyzed after an encounter with a white officer. Rittenhouse, who lived across the state line in Antioch, Ill., testified that he intended to act as a medic and help protect private property.
But the night spiraled out of control. In a series of chaotic encounters with protesters, documented thoroughly by photographs and videos, Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and injured Gaige Grosskreutz, then 26.
During the trial, Rittenhouse said he feared for his life in all three cases. Rosenbaum, he said, had chased him and was grabbing for his rifle.
"Mr. Rosenbaum was chasing me. He said he was going to kill me if he got me alone. I was alone. I was running from him. I pointed it at him, and it didn't stop him from continuing to chase me," Rittenhouse testified.
Afterward, as he ran toward police, others, including Huber and Grosskreutz, began to chase him. Huber struck him with a skateboard, visual evidence confirms. Grosskreutz was holding a loaded Glock pistol, which, he admitted during cross-examination, was pointed at Rittenhouse, though he said that was unintentional.
The criminal trial ends with acquittal, but civil lawsuits could be coming
Prosecutors argued that Rittenhouse was responsible for creating those situations. He chose to bring a deadly rifle into a dangerous environment, they said, and chose to stay there even after being separated from a friend.
Rosenbaum was unarmed, they pointed out, yet Rittenhouse shot him four times, all as Rosenbaum was falling to the ground. Grosskreutz testified that he feared for his own life, given the presence of Rittenhouse's rifle, and was trying to disarm Rittenhouse, not kill him. Asked on the witness stand what was going through his mind during their encounter, Grosskreutz replied, "That I was going to die."
But prosecutors also made repeated missteps, prompting defense lawyers to request a mistrial on two occasions, the first over Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger questioning Rittenhouse's right to remain silent and a second over a drone video that prosecutors had inadvertently compressed when sharing it with defense lawyers.
And legal experts said prosecutors relied too heavily on video evidence that was difficult to interpret and witnesses who offered testimony that at times seemed to bolster Rittenhouse's case.
"The prosecution had a very difficult time establishing its own case through its own witnesses. Each of the witnesses that the prosecution put forward did something to help their case but also did something that was harmful to their case," said Charles Coleman Jr., a civil rights lawyer and former prosecutor.
In the end, jurors were ultimately persuaded by Rittenhouse's version of events.
"Some might have had concerns about the decisions that brought Mr. Rittenhouse to Kenosha that evening and how he reacted. However, unless the state proves beyond a reasonable doubt that this wasn't reasonable and that he didn't believe that he needed to use deadly force to defend himself, then the only proper verdict is acquittal," said Chris Zachar, a criminal defense attorney based in La Crosse, Wis., who was not involved in the trial.
Rittenhouse could still be sued for damages in a civil trial, where the burden of proof is lower than in criminal trials.
In a statement, Huber's parents, Karen Bloom and John Huber, said that their son "would have his day in court" and that they were "heartbroken and angry" over the acquittal.
"Today's verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son. It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street," they said.
A lightning rod of a trial, broadcast widely across the U.S.
The case has sparked passionate reactions from the American public since the moment Rittenhouse fired his rifle that night.
Nearly every aspect of the case touches on some of the country's most contentious fault lines: Second Amendment rights, self-defense, violence at racial justice protests, vigilantism and perceptions of how police and the justice system treat white people and people of color differently.
Supporters saw Rittenhouse as a champion of gun rights who bravely stepped in to protect a community from what they considered lawless riots. Opponents instead saw an irresponsible vigilante who came to Kenosha to play dress-up as a police officer — a "chaos tourist," as Binger put it.
"What comes to mind is the comment that, 'How do you stop an active shooter? Good guys with guns.' In this case, you've got Mr. Rittenhouse, who fires off four shots at somebody who's unarmed and then continues to shoot people," said Zachar. "Who's the good guy? Who's the bad guy in that scenario? No, nobody really knows."
For the past two weeks, the trial has commanded the nation's attention — thanks in no small part to the fact that nearly every minute of the proceedings was broadcast widely on TV and livestream video. Everyone from basketball star LeBron James to Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., weighed in before the verdict.
The White House released a statement from President Biden on Friday saying that the verdict "will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included," but that "we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken." Biden urged people to refrain from violence and property destruction and said he had contacted Wisconsin's governor to offer "support and any assistance needed to ensure public safety."