On Tuesday, the jury heard opening statements in Wisconsin v. Kyle Rittenhouse, one of the most closely watched criminal cases likely to be tried this year. Here are the events that led up to the case, and a point-by-point summary of the arguments both sides will make.
In August 2020, a Kenosha, Wisconsin police officer shot a black man named Jacob Blake, and black activists, already on hair trigger over the killing of George Floyd in May, rioted. Kyle Rittenhouse, a white teenager, went out to help protect a local business. During the course of the evening of August 26, he shot three people, killing Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, 26. He promptly turned himself in to the police and is now standing trial in Kenosha. He is now on trial for first-degree murder.
The prosecutor is Thomas Binger, who has worked in the DA’s office for seven years. In 2016 he ran as a Democrat for district attorney in next door Racine County, but lost. In his opening statement, he told the story of a young man who armed himself with a rifle he was not old enough to use and then chased down and killed an unarmed man by shooting him in the back. Mr. Binger told the jury that Mr. Rittenhouse fled the scene without offering aid, even though Mr. Rittenhouse was supposedly there as a medic. After word spread that there was a shooter in the area, citizens tried to stop him. Anthony Huber took “a swing” at Mr. Rittenhouse’s head with his skateboard, causing him to fall, then an unidentified man kicked Mr. Rittenhouse in the face. Mr. Rittenhouse fired his rifle but missed.
Anthony Huber then grabbed the gun, but was unable to disarm Mr. Rittenhouse, because the gun was strapped to his body. Mr. Rittenhouse pulled the trigger as Huber stood over him, shooting him fatally. Gaige Grosskreutz tried to intervene with a phone in one hand and a pistol in another. Mr. Rittenhouse shot him in the arm.
Mr. Binger told the jury that following the Jacob Blake shooting on a Sunday night, the uptown area of Kenosha suffered severe damage, but all of the damage was property damage, and life is more important than property. The prosecutor painted a picture of a town that was not in serious trouble until own-of-towners interfered: “Like moths to a flame, tourists from outside our community were drawn to the chaos in Kenosha.”
“Out of the hundreds of people that came to Kenosha during that week,” Mr. Binger said, “the only person who killed anyone was the defendant, Kyle Rittenhouse.” The prosecutor repeated the phase “hundreds of people” several times, as he told the jury about many hostile arguments that took place that night, re-emphasizing that in this volatile situation, only Kyle Rittenhouse was a killer.
Mr. Binger told the jury that Mr. Rittenhouse got his sister’s boyfriend, Dominick Black, to buy the gun for him, since he was a minor.
On August 25, Mr. Rittenhouse was in Kenosha cleaning up graffiti. Later, he and Mr. Black spoke to the owner of Car Source, a used-car dealership, about protecting his business. They bought straps to hold their guns across their bodies, and then met others who wanted to protect the property. Mr. Binger conceded that it was lawful to protect property with firearms, and that Mr. Rittenhouse was not the only person doing so that night.
The riots of August 25, 2020 raged right outside the courthouse where the trial is now taking place. Protesters threw things at the police, and the police fired rubber bullets. Mr. Binger described how Mr. Rittenhouse met a group of protestors, after one of them started a dumpster fire. There was a harsh exchange, but Mr. Binger blamed Mr. Rittenhouse: “This is not a safe crowd to be in. This is a crowd that does not view him as an ally. This is a crowd that if he ventures out into it, there could be problems.”
He told the jury that Mr. Rittenhouse crossed a police line and “ventured out” among hostile protestors after Car Source seemed safe. At that time Joseph Rosenbaum was on the streets, carrying a clear-plastic drawstring bag, which he got when he was released earlier from a hospital. The bag was for his personal belongings. Rosenbaum, who was 5’3” and weighed 150 lbs., came up to a few men armed as Mr. Rittenhouse was and shouted at them, but they pushed him away.
Mr. Rittenhouse was walking alone, carrying a fire extinguisher in case there were fires. Rosenbaum was behind him. Mr. Binger told the jury that the state will show aerial infrared video taken by the FBI, which proves that Mr. Rittenhouse “initiated something unknown” with Rosenbaum, and that made Rosenbaum run towards him. Mr. Rittenhouse dropped the fire extinguisher and ran. Thirty feet from where Mr. Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum were running, Joshua Ziminski, 35, fired a pistol into the air, and 2.5 seconds later, Mr. Rittenhouse fired four shots at Rosenbaum. The first two hit Rosenbaum’s pelvis and thigh, causing him to fall forward. As he fell, Mr. Rittenhouse fired two more shots, one of which hit Rosenbaum’s back and killed him.
Richie McGinness, chief video director of the Daily Caller, was filming all this, and he said that a shot whizzed past him. For this, Mr. Rittenhouse has been charged with reckless endangerment.
Mr. Binger insisted that when considering whether Mr. Rittenhouse’s action were reasonable it is important to remember that no one else shot anyone that day. “You will get the full story here in the courtroom,” Mr. Binger said. “You will see some things that have not been made public yet.” Judge Bruce Schroeder ordered a recess after Mr. Binger’s opening statement.
Mr. Rittenhouse’s lead defense counsel is Mark Richards. He is a high-profile local lawyer who, over a 34-year career, has worked as both a prosecutor and a defense lawyer. According to his website, he has argued more than 100 cases before juries.
Before the jury returned from recess, there was a discussion about Rosenbaum, the first man who was killed. There had been a conflict with his girlfriend, and he was forbidden to have any contact with her. He went to her house on the night of the riots, but could not stay. Mr. Binger mentioned this in his opening, but did not explain why Rosenbaum had left. Mr. Richards argued that mentioning this opened the door to explaining the reason Rosenbaum had to leave, but Mr. Binger said that was irrelevant.
Mr. Richards argued that “he can’t have it both ways. He can’t go and say ‘He was at the house and he couldn’t stay there.’ Why can’t we tell the jury why?”
Mr. Richards said it wasn’t fair for Mr. Binger to criticize Kyle Rittenhouse for going to Kenosha while suggesting that Joseph Rosenbaum had a good reason not to be home that night. The jury should know Rosenbaum could not stay with his girlfriend because he was under a no-contact order.
Mr. Richards also argued that he should be able to tell the jury that the hospital Rosenbaum had just been released from was a mental hospital, and that he was in for a suicide attempt. Many would think it relevant whether someone who ran after a man with a rifle had a death wish, but Judge Schroeder thought that might be inadmissible. He said he would rule on it later. He also told the defense not to mention in the opening that that Rosenbaum had violated terms of a bond hearing and that he had attempted suicide.
When the jury returned, Mr. Richards opened by explaining that Kyle Rittenhouse had seen videos of looting and arson in Kenosha, including video that showed part of Car Source on fire. The next day, he went to downtown Kenosha to look at the damage, and helped clean up. He met the owner of Car Source and offered to help protect the lot that night.
Mr. Rittenhouse has strong ties to Kenosha. His father lived there and his mother lived a half-hour away in Antioch, Illinois. Mr. Rittenhouse also worked in Kenosha County as a lifeguard.
Mr. Richards said this trial would not be a whodunit; the case is about whether Mr. Rittenhouse’s actions were self-defense. He told the jury that they are required to look at the case from the standpoint of a 17-year-old in the circumstances Mr. Rittenhouse found himself in. Mr. Richards said it’s true that Mr. Rittenhouse was the only person to shoot someone that night, but he was also the only person to be chased by Joseph Rosenbaum.
Mr. Richards showed pictures of Rosenbaum among the crowd on the street. Someone had started a dumpster fire very close to a gas station. After the fire was put out, Rosenbaum got angry and yelled that he wanted to be shot. He menaced other armed people.
Mr. Richards also showed a picture of Joshua Ziminski, who fired the shot while Rosenbaum was chasing Mr. Rittenhouse. Mr. Ziminski is facing charges for his own actions that night, but Mr. Richards did not tell this to the jury. Mr. Richards showed jurors photos of Rosenbaum and Mr. Ziminski at the dumpster fire, and pictures of Mr. Ziminski carrying a gun and holding a heavy chain.
Mr. Richards told the jury that although Kyle Rittenhouse told Gaige Grosskreutz — the man whom he shot in the arm — that he was going to turn himself in to the police, Mr. Grosskreutz ran after Rittenhouse and pulled out a pistol. He showed a photo of Mr. Grosskreutz reaching for his gun. Other still photos showed that an unknown person known only as “Jump Kick Man” then attacked Mr. Rittenhouse, who fired twice but missed. “Jump Kick Man” disappeared into the night and has never come forward. While Mr. Rittenhouse was on the ground after being jump-kicked, Anthony Huber hit him with a skateboard.
Huber’s girlfriend refused to turn the skateboard over to police, so it will not be in court. “I would love to be able to hold up that skateboard as evidence today,” Mr. Richards said, “Because then you could see it; you could see the weight and the heft of what a skateboard is, and what a skateboard would do when somebody takes it . . . and swings down on somebody’s shoulder, head and neck, trying to separate the head from the body.”
This graphic description was met with an objection from the State, saying that this was Mr. Richards’s interpretation, but Judge Schroeder overruled.
Mr. Richards cited an example of Mr. Rittenhouse avoiding trouble that night. At 11:40 pm, a man accused him of pointing a laser sight at him, but Mr. Rittenhouse walked away.
Dominic Black called Mr. Rittenhouse at 11:45 pm, telling him that rioters were breaking windows and starting fires at a location the court calls “Car Source 3.” Mr. Rittenhouse got a fire extinguisher and went to help, but ran into Joseph Rosenbaum.
Mr. Richards played a portion of the FBI’s thermal imaging video. People appear only as dots of light, and on first viewing, it’s hard to make out what is happening. The jury was warned it would see this “a hundred times.” Mr. Richards said the video shows that Mr. Rittenhouse ran away from Rosenbaum, in contrast to the State’s claim that he was hunting and chasing Rosenbaum.
Mr. Richards told the jury that Kyle Rittenhouse will take the stand. The lawyer said that both Mr. Rittenhouse and another witness will tell the jury that Joseph Rosenbaum threatened to kill them.
Describing the argument between Rosenbaum and Mr. Rittenhouse, Mr. Richards said, “Mr. Rosenbaum is wearing that maroon shirt on his face as a mask, covering up his identity, because he wants to steal my client’s firearm, and use it against him to carry out the threat he made earlier.”
Mr. Rittenhouse fired four shots after Rosenbaum screamed at him, and the shooting, which took 76 hundredths of a second, will be analyzed by an expert witness.
A video taken by Gaige Grosskreuz was shown during opening statements. Mr. Rittenhouse is running while Mr. Grosskreuz asks him what’s going on and who got shot.
Mr. Richards showed photographic evidence that Mr. Grosskreuz pulled a weapon before Mr. Rittenhouse shot him. Mr. Grosskreutz lied in his statement to the police, claiming he was unarmed. He told police he was trying to stop Huber from beating Rittenhouse with the skateboard.
The defense played a familiar video of Mr. Rittenhouse trying to surrender while police vehicles roll by. Mr. Richards told the jury that the police told him to go away and sprayed pepper spray towards him. At 1:20am, Mr. Rittenhouse, accompanied by his mother, turned himself in at a police station in Antioch.
These are the charges against Mr. Rittenhouse:
First Degree Intentional Homicide, Use of a Dangerous Weapon – for killing Anthony Huber, the skateboard attacker. The charge carries a mandatory life sentence. The weapons modifier adds an additional five years to the sentence for each charge.
First Degree Reckless Homicide, Use of a Dangerous Weapon – for killing Joseph Rosenbaum. It is a felony punishable by up to 60 years in prison.
Attempted First Degree Intentional Homicide, Use of a Dangerous Weapon – for shooting Gaige Grosskreutz in the arm. It carries a maximum sentence of 60 years, plus five years for the weapons modifier.
Two counts of First Degree Recklessly Endangering Safety, Use of a Dangerous Weapon – The first count is because Richie McGinniss was in the line of fire when Mr. Rittenhouse shot Rosenbaum. The second is for the shots fired at “Jump Kick Man.” Each charge is punishable by 12 -1/2 years in prison.
Possession of a Dangerous Weapon by a Person Under 18 – This is a misdemeanor punishable by up to nine months in prison.
Failure to Comply with an Emergency Order from State or Local Government – There was an 8 p.m. curfew for the night of the shootings, and Mr. Rittenhouse was out well after that hour. This offense carries a \$200 fine.
Judge Schroeder told the jury what the state must prove in order to find Kyle Rittenhouse guilty of these charges. His actions easily meet these criteria for homicide, but he is innocent if he acted in self-defense. These were the judge’s instructions on self-defense:
“Self-defense allows the defendant to threaten or intentionally use force against another only if the defendant believed there was an actual and unlawful interference with his own person and that he believed the amount of force he used or threatened to use was necessary to prevent or terminate the interference and that his beliefs were reasonable. The defendant may intentionally use force which was intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm, only if the defendant reasonably believed that the force used was necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself, a belief may be reasonable, even though it is mistaken. The standard is what a person of ordinary intelligence and prudence would have believed in the defendant’s position.”
Judge Schroeder further stated that the burden is on the state to prove that Mr. Rittenhouse did not act lawfully in self-defense.
We cannot cover every day of the trial, but these are the arguments that testimony is expected to flesh out.