Opening arguments on Tuesday set the stage for the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who allegedly shot and killed two people and wounded another during a protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year. Prosecutors called the now-18-year-old an aggressor, while Rittenhouse's attorney maintains his client acted in self-defense.
Kenosha County Circuit Court Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger said Rittenhouse was one of the armed "tourists" who were drawn "like moths to a flame" by the civil unrest in the city that erupted following the shooting of a Black man by police in August 2020.
"But out of the hundreds of people that came to Kenosha during that week, the hundreds of people that were out on the streets that week, the evidence will show that the only person that killed anyone was the defendant," Binger said. "When we consider the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions, I ask you to keep this in mind."
One of Rittenhouse's attorneys, Mark Richards, countered the prosecution's version of events in his opening statements, claiming that this client only acted because he was afraid for his life.
"Ultimately, what this case will come down to — it isn't a whodunit or when-did-it-happen or anything like that. It is: [Were] Kyle Rittenhouse's actions privileged under the law of self-defense?" Richards said.
Amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, violent demonstrations broke out in Kenosha on Aug. 23, 2020, after a 29-year-old Black man named Jacob Blake was shot in the back by police while walking to his car. Blake, who was shot in front of three of his children, was left paralyzed from the waist down as a result of his injuries.
Two days later, during the protests, Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, allegedly shot and killed protesters Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 27. He is also accused of recklessly endangering the lives of an unnamed individual and Daily Caller reporter Richard McGinnis.
Rittenhouse has been charged with two counts of first-degree homicide, one count of attempted homicide, two counts of recklessly endangering safety, and one count of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18. He has pleaded not guilty. If convicted of first-degree homicide, he could be sentenced to life in prison.
As the Associated Press and the New Yorker have noted, the Rittenhouse case has sparked an American culture war, with many on the right seeing him as a patriot who exercised his Second Amendment rights and acted in self-defense to protect Kenosha from violent protesters. President Donald Trump even addressed the shooting specifically during the 2020 election campaign, defending Rittenhouse and saying he "probably would have been killed" if he hadn't taken action.
On Monday evening, following a day of tense questioning, 20 people were selected as potential jurors. Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder questioned more than 150 people, at one point warning, "this is not a political trial."
According to an AP report, Schroeder said that at the end of the trial he will select which of the 20 people will be the 12 jurors who deliberate the case — the other 8 will be alternates. Of the 20, there are 11 women and 9 men.
In pretrial proceedings on Friday, as reported by the Washington Post, Schroeder determined that Rosenbaum, Huber, and Grosskreutz cannot be referred to as "victims" during the trial because the term is "loaded." Instead, the three men can be referred to as "rioters," "looters," and "arsonists."
On Aug. 25, after two nights of protests that saw arrests and buildings looted and defaced, Rittenhouse traveled from his home of Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha, allegedly as part of a militia group to defend the city, according to the criminal complaint. The group, including Rittenhouse, who was armed with a long gun later identified as a Smith & Wesson AR-15-style .223 rifle, took up positions in front of a gas station, according to witness testimony and video.
Shortly before midnight, Rittenhouse shot and killed Rosenbaum, reportedly after Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse across the gas station parking lot, according to the criminal complaint. McGinnis, who was recording the shooting, told police that he was in the line of fire when Rittenhouse shot Rosenbaum, Binger said.
Rittenhouse fled the scene and was chased by protesters, among them Huber, who attempted to attack Rittenhouse with a skateboard after the then-17-year-old fell to the ground. As Huber attempted to disarm Rittenhouse, the teenager attempted to shoot an unnamed protester and then shot and killed Huber at point-blank range. Grosskreutz, who according to the complaint was armed, then attempted to approach Rittenhouse with his hands up. Rittenhouse shot Grosskreutz in the arm and the protester fled the scene to seek medical attention.
The motivations and actions of the men allegedly shot by Rittenhouse were key points in both opening arguments on Tuesday, as each side argued about whether or not the teenager truly feared for his life.