Kyle Rittenhouse’s jury will not hear about his alleged ties to a far-right group or be shown a photo of him flashing a hand sign appropriated by some white supremacist groups when his murder case goes to trial later this year, a Kenosha County judge ruled Friday.
Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder also barred prosecutors from playing a video in which Rittenhouse punched a girl and another in which the Antioch teen said he wished he had his assault rifle with him so he could shoot at people he believed were shoplifting from a drugstore.
Both videos were taken in the weeks before Rittenhouse, then 17, killed two men and wounded a third with an AR-15-style rifle. Despite not being old enough to openly carry a gun, Rittenhouse took it upon himself to patrol the southeastern Wisconsin town amid the turmoil surrounding the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer in August 2020.
The rulings dealt a setback to prosecutors’ efforts to portray Rittenhouse as a “chaos tourist” who came to Kenosha to impose his own sense of justice.
“This is not a political trial,” Schroeder said. “This is not going to be a political trial.”
Defense attorneys argue Rittenhouse acted in self-defense that night after being chased by Joseph Rosenbaum, the first man he fatally shot. Without offering any evidence, they told Schroeder that Rosenbaum — a convicted sex offender who had recently been institutionalized — had been chasing Rittenhouse because he couldn’t purchase his own gun with a criminal record and wanted to steal the teen’s assault rifle.
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger landed a blow to that defense narrative when he announced the FBI has images showing Rittenhouse was the one who initially followed Rosenbaum. As the two reached the car lot where the shooting occurred, Rittenhouse said something to Rosenbaum, who then turned around and started to chase Rittenhouse.
The recording was captured by an infrared camera attached to an FBI fixed wing aircraft that was monitoring the city during the chaos, Binger said.
“The FBI video gives us the context we have been missing,” Binger said.
Rittenhouse’s attorneys initially appeared surprised by the disclosure during the court hearing. They later acknowledged they were told of the video’s existence two weeks ago but had not yet looked at it.
The video was not played in court Friday, so the Tribune cannot independently verify what the recording shows.
Binger also told the court he has evidence that Rittenhouse met for lunch after a court hearing earlier this year with several high-ranking members of the Proud Boys organization, a far-right group known for street fights that the Anti-Defamation League characterizes as “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration,” with some members espousing “white supremacist and anti-Semitic ideologies.”
Upon arrival at a bar in nearby Mount Pleasant, Wisconsin, Rittenhouse posed with two men while flashing the “OK” sign, which prosecutors described as “co-opted as a symbol of white supremacy/white power.” He took several other photos while drinking three beers over 90 minutes, prosecutors have said.
Rittenhouse’s attorneys repeatedly have denied he is a member the organization. Prosecutors said they would present evidence showing the teen flew to Florida shortly after the bar gathering and was picked up at the airport by the Proud Boys’ national leader.
The defense accused prosecutors of using the Proud Boys to inject race into the case and suggested it couldn’t have played a role because the three men Rittenhouse fired upon were white. Rittenhouse fatally shot Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26. A third man, Gaige Grosskreutz, who prosecutors have said was armed with a handgun, survived the teen shooting him in the arm.
Prosecutors, however, contend Rittenhouse’s motivations were more nuanced than simply the color of the victims’ skin. The teen, Binger said, embraced the Proud Boys’ philosophy of perpetrating violence against those who disagree with their beliefs, including organizations such as Black Lives Matter, which led demonstrations in downtown Kenosha following Blake’s shooting.
“Most everyone there was there because of their beliefs, one way or the other, in regards to the shooting of Jacob Blake,” Binger said. “Chaos tourists like the defendant were drawn like a moth to the flame to our community. He was drawn to this incident because of his beliefs, which align with the Proud Boys. They take pride in using violence to achieve their means.”
Schroeder — a veteran judge who said he had not heard of the Proud Boys before Rittenhouse’s case landed in his courtroom — barred prosecutors from introducing the evidence, saying the incidents took place after the shooting and could unfairly prejudice the jury.
He suggested the bar meeting could have been a coincidence with Rittenhouse merely happy to take pictures with people who supported him. The judge also downplayed the defendant flashing the “OK” sign in the photo, saying the sign is also used as a game and in old Chef Boyardee campaigns.
“I certainly would keep the door open if you can show that there is any connection between the defendant on the day in question and this organization,” Schroeder said. “But as I said before, if this organization embraces the defendant after the fact (and) he’s lionized because of his behavior, that is not something that the jury can make anything out of that would be lawful.”
Rittenhouse has been a popular figure with the political right, and his former lawyers appealed to those sympathies as they sought money for his bond. Before Rittenhouse was freed, a chant of “break out Kyle” erupted at pro-President Donald Trump demonstrations in Washington that involved extremist groups including the Proud Boys.
Rittenhouse’s trial is scheduled to begin Nov. 1.