Kyle Rittenhouse’s fate soon to be in jurors’ hands

© Chicago Tribune

Mark Hertzberg/POOL/Zuma Press/TNS

KENOSHA, Wis. — Inside the 100-year-old Kenosha County Courthouse Monday, jurors are expected to begin deliberations on whether Kyle Rittenhouse acted in self-defense when he killed two men and wounded a third during a violent, chaotic night in August 2020.

It’s a legally nuanced question that has often been drowned out by the virulent political debate surrounding the trial. Since its inception, the case has served as a sort of national Rorschach test, with some seeing in the teenager a patriot who used his Second Amendment right to defend himself and others viewing him as a gun-wielding white boy who believed he could act with impunity.

At the intersection of gun rights and racial inequities, however, comes a straightforward self-defense case in which jurors must decide whether Rittenhouse believed his life to be in danger when he fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and injured Gaige Grosskreutz. If the answer is “yes,” then they must decide whether the belief was reasonable.

“Self-defense cases have always been my favorite cases because they’re subjective in nature,” said Chicago attorney Sam Adam Jr., who is also licensed to practice in Wisconsin. “It’s not about whether someone did something or not. It’s about how they felt and what they thought at the time they did it.”

Though the judge has given the jurors instructions to put aside political tensions surrounding the case, several members indicated during the selection process that they worried a verdict would only stoke anger. Indeed, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has activated 500 National Guard members and sent them to Kenosha in anticipation of the trial’s conclusion. Several law enforcement agencies also are on heightened alert, including the Chicago Police Department, which recently canceled days off as the officer’s union said it was bracing for the trial’s conclusion.

It’s against this backdrop that the predominantly white jury will attempt to reach a verdict.

“I really think that’s the threshold question,” veteran defense attorney Terry Ekl said. “If you took the politics, the media attention and all that out of the case, I think it’s a slam-dunk ‘not guilty.’ ”

Rittenhouse and the men he shot were in downtown Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020, amid social unrest following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer. And each for a different reason.

Then 17 and living just below the Illinois border in Antioch, Rittenhouse inserted himself into the tumult by jumping at a chance to guard a used car lot with an AR-15-style rifle that prosecutors say a friend illegally purchased for him. He boasted in pre-shooting interviews of his intention to provide medical services to those in attendance, falsely claiming he was a certified medic.

Grosskreutz, however, was a trained paramedic and had spent the summer attending social protests throughout Wisconsin to provide first aid to demonstrators. Huber, 26, who had known Blake since they were young, was upset about the shooting. Rosenbaum, a 36-year-old homeless man, had just been released from a psychiatric hospital and had been dropped off earlier at the Kenosha bus station.

Rittenhouse testified he had no problems with any protesters that night except for Rosenbaum, who he said twice threatened him. Rittenhouse told jurors Rosenbaum threatened to kill him if he ever got him alone and also vowed to rip his heart out.

Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum crossed paths in a used car lot, where the teen says another man ordered Rosenbaum to “get” Rittenhouse and a chase ensued. Prosecutors argue Rittenhouse provoked the situation by pointing his gun at the man, prompting Rosenbaum to respond.

As Rosenbaum pursued Rittenhouse, he threw a plastic bag at the teen. Rittenhouse stopped briefly and pointed his gun at Rosenbaum, who continued to gain ground on him. When they reached a group of parked cars, an unarmed Rosenbaum unsuccessfully lunged for Rittenhouse’s rifle and looked to be falling as he lost his center of gravity, according to witness testimony.

Rittenhouse fired four shots, including a fatal bullet into Rosenbaum’s back. The other wounds would likely not have killed the man, according to the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy.

Professional videographer Richard McGinniss, who prosecutors say was a victim of reckless endangerment when the teen fired his rifle, witnessed the shooting and immediately tried to help Rosenbaum. He screamed at Rittenhouse to call 911 and saw him reach into his pocket. McGinniss wrongly assumed he was calling 911.

Records show Rittenhouse called a friend, Dominick Black, and then ran away with his first-aid kit. Rittenhouse told the jury he felt his life would be in danger if he stayed at the scene.

As Rittenhouse headed down Kenosha’s main road, he testified, Huber hit him with his skateboard, causing him to become lightheaded and stumble to the ground. While he was on the ground, a man jumped over Rittenhouse and attempted to kick his head. Rittenhouse fired two shots at him and missed. He faces a reckless endangerment charge for those shots.

Huber then attempted to stop Rittenhouse with his skateboard, hitting him in the head. The teen fired a single shot into Huber’s chest, killing him almost immediately.

On the video, Grosskreutz approached Rittenhouse with a cellphone in one hand and his pistol in the other. Video shows the teen turning toward him with his rifle and Grosskreutz raising his hands.

Rittenhouse then checked his gun, and Grosskreutz took a step forward, his left arm stretched out and the hand holding the gun pulled back with the barrel pointed toward the teen. Rittenhouse fired a bullet into his arm, essentially blowing off his entire right bicep.

After shooting Grosskreutz, Rittenhouse made his way down the street to the police. He tried to turn himself in, but the patrolmen ignored his attempts to surrender and drove by him. His friend, Dominick Black, eventually drove him back home, where he turned himself in at the Antioch police station.

Rittenhouse’s case immediately became a popular cause in conservative circles, where pundits began defending the teenager before he had even been charged, and at least two guns rights groups raised money to pay legal fees. Conservative lawyer John Pierce, who represented Rittenhouse at the time, bailed him out of jail with $2 million raised, in part, with help from actor Ricky Schroeder and My Pillow founder Mike Lindell.

Since parting ways with Pierce, Rittenhouse’s mother, Wendy, has taken over fundraising for his legal fees, according to prosecutors. In October, the defense fund tweeted that it had raised more than $650,000 and continued to accept donations throughout the trial.

Rittenhouse’s legal team includes Jo-Ellan Dimitrius, a jury consultant who gained national prominence for her work on the O.J. Simpson case. Dimitrius has been a constant presence at the trial, sitting with the Rittenhouse family and comforting Wendy Rittenhouse on national television as she sobbed in the courtroom gallery during her son’s testimony.

The teen faces six charges, including the reckless and intentional homicides of Rosenbaum and Huber, respectively. Judge Bruce Schroeder has indicated he is inclined to give the jury the option of so-called lesser included charges involving Huber, McGinniss and Grosskreutz, which means jurors will be given the option of finding Rittenhouse guilty of something less serious than the original charge.

The judge did not agree to do the same for the charge concerning Rosenbaum’s fatal shooting or the reckless endangerment charge involving the unidentified man whom Rittenhouse fired at twice, missing both times. Schroeder, though, said the jury instructions won’t be finalized until Monday.

In a potential win for the prosecution, the judge also tentatively approved a provocation instruction, meaning jurors will be asked to determine whether Rittenhouse provoked the confrontation. If so, Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim would be negated.

The defense objected to the lesser charges, a sign they believe they have beaten the toughest counts and don’t want jurors to be given the option of compromising on something less severe. Indeed, even the prosecution’s biggest supporters believe their case occasionally missed the mark, as some of the state’s own witnesses seemingly backed up the self-defense claims.

“We really wanted the prosecutor to pull out his teeth a little earlier and make a staunch case,” said Justin Blake, Jacob Blake’s uncle, who has been at the courthouse every day. “He tried, but we believe he should have come out stronger and it would have made the case a lot easier for him.”

Lead prosecutor Thomas Binger, an assistant district attorney, didn’t get much help from the state’s key witnesses.

Grosskreutz, the only man to survive being shot by Rittenhouse, testified he believed some people chasing Rittenhouse down the street intended to hurt the teen. Grosskreutz, a trained paramedic, also confirmed he had a gun in his right hand and pointed toward the teen as he took a step in his direction after Rittenhouse fatally shot Huber.

And, McGinniss, the professional videographer and arguably the state’s most credible witness, told the jury Rosenbaum lunged for Rittenhouse’s gun before being shot.

“Driven by facts — not hyperbole, opinions and the political aspect of this case — it looked to me like a very good self-defense case for Rittenhouse,” Ekl said.

Rittenhouse also helped his case, legal experts said, with well-prepared testimony that did not dismantle his self-defense claim. Testifying over several hours, Rittenhouse avoided potential traps laid by prosecutors by continually repeating, “I defended myself,” even when the answer was not related to the question.

“I think any trial lawyer would probably say he wasn’t broken on the stand,” said Jeffrey Cramer, a former federal prosecutor. “It’s going to come down to whether the jury thinks he was fearful and if that was reasonable. It’s also human nature: What would they have done in that situation?”

Rittenhouse, however, is also charged with recklessly endangering McGinniss’ life and faces up to 12 years in prison if convicted. In testimony that could be key to deciding that charge, McGinniss — who is considered a victim by prosecutors because of his proximity to the shooting — said he felt he was in danger when Rittenhouse fired.

The defense tried to get McGinniss to tell the jurors Rittenhouse could not have seen McGinniss when he pulled the trigger, but the videographer held firm that it was possible. Rittenhouse testified he did not know McGinniss was there, though he certainly knew people were hanging around the used car lot.

Koerri Washington, 33, a lifelong Kenosha resident, testified for the prosecution about cellphone video footage he livestreamed on social media during the unrest.

“People want to make everything political,” he told the Tribune. “Really, it comes down to a situation where I suppose people’s ideologies kind of clashed and, in my opinion, they probably shouldn’t have. People should have taken more time to think about the situation and what could potentially happen when you make certain decisions.”

Washington doesn’t know what the trial’s outcome will mean for his community, but he hopes it’s a peaceful one — for everybody’s sake.

“What happened, happened,” he said. “And hopefully with the information and the documentation that was captured (the jury) can come to some sort of conclusion that people are OK with. But at the end of the day, everybody’s life has to go on. I’m just trying to remain positive. Hopefully, people can learn from this and we can move forward in a better direction.”