A US jury has acquitted a teenager who killed two men during civil unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin last year, in a case that has sharply divided public opinion on the right and left.
The jury handed down the verdict for Kyle Rittenhouse, 18, on the fourth day of deliberations. He was found not guilty on all five counts. After the jury’s verdict, Rittenhouse fell to the ground and then rose into the arms of one of his attorneys.
Jurors had considered five charges against Rittenhouse, the most serious being intentional homicide, which carries a mandatory life sentence. He also was charged with first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree attempted homicide and first-degree reckless endangerment of public safety. The judge dismissed a firearms charge shortly before the trial ended.
The prosecution had described Rittenhouse as an armed “chaos tourist” who travelled to Kenosha “looking for trouble”. His attorneys had argued that he acted in self-defence during the protests in Kenosha, portraying Rittenhouse as civic-minded youth who protected property against rioters.
Conservative commentators and Republican lawmakers have expressed support for Rittenhouse throughout the trial, while Democrats and progressives have said the case illustrated how the US criminal justice system fails to hold white defendants accountable.
Reaction was just as divided after the verdict. Ron Johnson, a Republican senator from Wisconsin, said he believed “justice has been served”.
Civil rights lawyer Ben Crump said it had shown “the profound cracks in our justice system — from the deep bias routinely and unabashedly displayed by the judge, to the apathy of the officers who witnessed Rittenhouse’s crimes and did nothing”.
Jerrold Nadler, the New York Democrat who chairs the House judiciary committee, called the verdict a “miscarriage of justice” that “sets a dangerous precedent”, and called for federal prosecutors in the justice department to review the case.
“Justice cannot tolerate armed persons crossing state lines looking for trouble while people engage in First Amendment-protected protest,” he said in a tweet.
US president Joe Biden said in a statement: “While the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken.” He urged the public to respond “peacefully, consistent with the rule of law”, and said the White House had been in touch with the office of Wisconsin governor Tony Evers to offer support.
Tension outside the courthouse increased throughout the week, as groups of supporters and opponents of Rittenhouse grew larger. Evers had authorised 500 National Guard troops to standby in the small city in advance of the verdict.
Rittenhouse drove to Kenosha from Illinois in August 2020 after a police officer shot a black man, Jacob Blake, paralysing him and setting off days of protests and riots, which became an issue on the presidential campaign trail. The officer who shot Blake, Rusten Sheskey, was not charged with a crime.
Rittenhouse, who was among a number of armed men who travelled to Kenosha during the demonstrations, testified during the trial that he was there to protect property and offer first aid, and that he carried an assault-style rifle to protect himself.
The teenager later shot Joseph Rosenbaum, who suffered from bipolar disorder and had been released from the hospital that day. Defence and prosecutors tangled over which man acted as the aggressor. The crowd pursued Rittenhouse, who then shot and killed Anthony Huber and severely wounded a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz.
A member of the Blake family said outside the courthouse on Friday that “somehow, some way, those jurors . . . found that he was innocent of the charges, yet we have two young men that will never be walking through the door of their families’ [houses] again”.
As he spoke, a Rittenhouse supporter yelled, “He’s not guilty!” Some drivers outside the courthouse hooted in celebration.
Judge Bruce Schroeder, who presided over the trial, had been scrutinised for declining to enforce the conditions of Rittenhouse’s bail before trial and also clashing with prosecutors during the proceedings.
Rittenhouse’s lawyers argued that he acted in self-defence. Prosecutor Thomas Binger attacked the position, saying Rittenhouse’s actions threatened others and made him the aggressor in the confrontation with Rosenbaum, undercutting his right to defend himself.
“You cannot claim self-defence against a danger you create,” he said.
The crowd reacted to Rittenhouse as they would to an active shooter, Binger added, since “everyone else has the right to defend themselves also”.
Mark Richards, defence attorney, said Rittenhouse and the armed men he was with had been invited to defend businesses in Kenosha. Rittenhouse “didn’t shoot at anyone until he was chased and cornered”.
Calling it “a political case”, Richards said prosecutors pursued Rittenhouse to blame him for last year’s disturbance, but put the blame with “the mob”, not Rittenhouse. He called Rosenbaum a “crazy person” who “was hell-bent on causing trouble that night, and he started it”.
After the verdict, Richards told reporters that Rittenhouse had a “huge sense of relief”. Rittenhouse “had as much business being there [Kenosha] as any of the demonstrators or the rioters”, he said.
Binger said that “while we are disappointed in the verdict, it must be respected”.