By Staff Writer Susanne Prochazka
On November 19th, 2021, a jury returned from 27 hours of deliberation and declared 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty on all charges he faced after fatally shooting two people and wounding a third during a 2020 night of unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum (36) an unarmed man who had chased Rittenhouse, and Anthony Huber (26), a demonstrator who had struck him with a skateboard and then lunged for his rifle, and severely wounded a third, Gaige Grosskreutz (now 28) a demonstrator and paramedic who was armed with a Glock pistol.
Prosecutors had charged Rittenhouse with five felonies: first degree reckless homicide, use of a dangerous weapon; first-degree recklessly endangering safety, use of a dangerous weapon; first-degree recklessly endangering safety, use of a dangerous weapon; first-degree intentional homicide, use of a dangerous weapon; and attempted first-degree intentional homicide, use of a dangerous weapon. A sixth charge, possession of a dangerous weapon by a minor, was dismissed by Judge Schroeder in court a few days prior to closing arguments, stating that the Wisconsin law in question pertained to short-barreled rifles and did not apply to Rittenhouse’s semi-automatic rifle. A seventh charge, failure to comply with an emergency order from state or local government, was dismissed for insufficient evidence.
As polarizing as this case was, the legal arguments at issue essentially boil down to the concept of self-defense. Rittenhouse pleaded not guilty due to self-defense on all charges in the case that deepened national divides on issues of guns, protests, and policing. The crux of the self-defense legal arguments centers on the concept of reasonableness: Wisconsin’s law of self-defense allows someone to use deadly force if they reasonably believe they are in imminent danger of death or bodily harm. Thus, Rittenhouse’s defense team focused on persuading the jury that Rittenhouse reasonably believed his life was in danger and that the amount of force Rittenhouse used to defend himself was reasonable each time he fired his semi-automatic rifle. During his testimony, Rittenhouse insisted he fired in self-defense in each instance, using the amount of force he believed necessary to stop the threat, as he feared that his alleged attackers would wrest away his gun and use it to kill him.
In crafting this claim of self-defense, the defense team focused on establishing the credibility of Rittenhouse’s fear that his life was in imminent danger and that he had to shoot Rosenbaum, Huber, and Grosskreutz to save his own life. In the first instance, Rittenhouse testified that Rosenbaum behaved “hyper-aggressively” towards him, chasing him down and making a grab for Rittenhouse’s rifle, testimony that was corroborated by witnesses’ video evidence. In the second instance, Rittenhouse testified that Huber had attacked him, hitting him with a skateboard, a statement that was also corroborated by video evidence.
While the defense team had only to establish the grounds of reasonableness of Rittenhouse’s use of self-defense, the prosecution had to overcome a high legal bar in refuting this self-defense claim. Under Wisconsin law, once a defendant has made a self-defense claim, the prosecution must disprove this claim beyond a reasonable doubt, a high legal burden of proof. Here, prosecutors struggled to establish this standard, with witnesses for the prosecution repeatedly supporting the defense’s claim of self-defense through their testimony regarding the events of that evening. Two witnesses supported the defense’s claim that Rosenbaum had acted aggressively toward Rittenhouse prior to being shot, being described as lunging for Rittenhouse’s gun and attempting to provoke a reaction from Rittenhouse.
Grosskreutz, the victim that had survived the shooting, initially broadcast as the prosecution’s star witness, wound up giving testimony that bolstered the defense’s claim. Grosskreutz testified that, after he heard the shots fired in the first shooting of Rosenbaum, and was approaching him, Glock pistol in hand, as Rittenhouse shot Huber. Grosskreutz testified that he initially approached Rittenhouse with his own hands in the air, his Glock held limply in one hand. However, when he saw Rittenhouse adjusting his weapon, Grosskreutz brought his arms down and moved toward Rittenhouse, holding his gun pointed at Rittenhouse. This was the moment when Rittenhouse shot Grosskreutz. The defense team emphasized the aggressive and hostile appearance of Grosskreutz’ stance and approach in justifying Rittenhouse’s claim that he feared for his life.
In the end, with testimony such as this, the prosecution had failed to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Rittenhouse had not acted reasonably in self-defense. After almost three days in deliberation, the jurors found Rittenhouse’s claims of self-defense credible, with the entire verdict resting on this justification for the acquittal. Upholding Wisconsin’s self-defense law in this manner may bear implications in other Wisconsin cases regarding the use of deadly force in self-defense, notably that of Chrystul Kizer, who was a minor at the time she killed her adult sexual abuser in 2018. Kizer is still awaiting trial, with her attorneys building a strategy centered around an argument of self-defense. It will be interesting to see whether the self-defense law that allowed Rittenhouse, a white man armed with a semi-automatic rifle, to walk free will apply equally to Kizer, a black woman who had endured years of sex trafficking and abuse.