A jury found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty Friday on all charges stemming from the 2020 shootings that killed two people and severely injured another during chaotic protests against racial injustice in Kenosha, Wis.
The jury delivered its verdict Friday afternoon, after three and a half days of deliberation following the high-profile, three-week murder trial. As the verdict was read aloud, Rittenhouse reacted by falling to the ground briefly before crying and hugging his defense attorney.
Rittenhouse was 17 when he carried an AR-style semiautomatic rifle on the streets of Kenosha during a turbulent protest in the summer of 2020 and opened fire on demonstrators, killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and seriously wounding Gaige Grosskreutz.
He was charged with five felony counts stemming from the shootings, including first-degree intentional homicide, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. He was also charged with one misdemeanor count of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18, but Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder agreed to drop the weapons charge when defense attorneys argued that the teenager could be cleared under a hunting exemption to Wisconsin law, which does not permit the sale of a firearm to anyone under the age of 18.
Among the witnesses called by prosecutors was Rittenhouse’s friend Dominick Black, who said he purchased the gun used in the shootings.
Rittenhouse, now 18, pleaded not guilty to all the charges, arguing that he acted in self-defense by opening fire on demonstrators who, he claimed, were trying to attack him.
"I didn't do anything wrong. I defended myself," he said during his own lengthy and, at times, emotional testimony last week.
In addition to witness testimony, attorneys for both sides relied on a variety of videos taken at the scene before, during and immediately after the shootings.
Defense attorneys presented Rittenhouse as a Good Samaritan who voluntarily cleaned graffiti off a school just hours before traveling to Kenosha to provide first aid and armed security to a local business during a third night of volatile protests that had erupted in the city following the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer in August 2020. They argued that Rittenhouse was justified in firing his weapon at demonstrators who, they said, threatened, chased and hit him and tried to grab his gun.
Prosecutors, on the other hand, portrayed Rittenhouse, who lived with his mother about 20 miles from Kenosha in Antioch, Ill., as a dishonest “chaos tourist” who recklessly inserted himself into a volatile situation and made it even more dangerous, exhibiting a “disregard for human life.”
“The defendant was a fraud,” Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger declared in his closing argument on Monday, pointing to testimony given in court by the owners of a local car business, who denied asking Rittenhouse or anyone else to guard their property on the night of the shooting. Binger also emphasized that, contrary to statements made by Rittenhouse that night, he was not a trained EMT and, despite his claim to be a medic, he’d run away from the people he shot instead of attempting to provide them with first aid.
“Even on the witness stand, he broke down crying about himself, not anyone he hurt that night. No remorse, no concern for anyone else,” Binger said.
The police shooting of Blake and the unrest that followed took place at the tail end of a tumultuous summer filled with nationwide protests against racial injustice and, in particular, police killings of unarmed Black people, which had been sparked by the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
The first two nights of protests in Kenosha had devolved into looting and property damage, drawing national media attention to the small Wisconsin city on Lake Michigan well before Rittenhouse showed up with his AR-15. After the shootings, he became an instant political lightning rod, with figures on both the right and left rushing to hold up the teenager as a symbol of their divergent worldviews.
On Twitter the day after the shootings, Democratic Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts called Rittenhouse a “white supremacist domestic terrorist” and criticized news outlets for not describing him as such.
Even though all three of the men shot by Rittenhouse were white, his actions — including his presence at the protest alongside other armed vigilantes — were seen as racially charged.
On the right, Rittenhouse was immediately hailed as a hero who simply exercised his Second Amendment right to protect himself against violent rioters. “KYLE RITTENHOUSE FOR CONGRESS,” tweeted Republican Florida state Rep. Anthony Sabatini.
The teenager’s social media presence revealed him to be an aspiring police officer who, months before taking up arms at the protest in Kenosha, had been spotted in the front row of a Donald Trump rally. The incident seemed to validate the popular right-wing narrative, promoted by Trump, that state and local Democratic officials around the country were allowing leftist rioters and looters to destroy their cities.
“Kenosha has devolved into anarchy because the authorities in charge of the city abandoned it. People in charge, from the governor of Wisconsin on down, refused to enforce the law. They stood back and they watched Kenosha burn,” Fox News host Tucker Carlson said on his primetime show two days after the shootings. “So are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder? How shocked are we that 17-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”
Reactions to the trial were just as politicized, and earlier this week, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers authorized the deployment of 500 National Guard troops to Kenosha to be on standby ahead of the verdict.
"I urge folks who are otherwise not from the area to please respect the community by reconsidering any plans to travel there and encourage those who might choose to assemble and exercise their First Amendment rights to do so safely and peacefully," Evers said in a statement.
On more than one occasion, Judge Schroeder acknowledged the intense public scrutiny his courtroom was under and even complained openly about media coverage of the trial.
Schroeder, who is the longest-serving circuit court judge in Wisconsin, emerged as a polarizing figure during the trial, prompting accusations of bias from some for both his formal rulings and his offhand remarks.