In closing arguments in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, jurors heard two versions of the deadly night of Aug. 25, 2020: Was Rittenhouse a well-intentioned, responsible young man trying to keep his community safe when he was attacked by violent people trying to harm him? Or was he a reckless teenager who went looking for trouble in Kenosha, Wis., where he killed two people who intended him no harm?
Prosecutors and defense attorneys took turns Monday making their final cases in Rittenhouse’s highly watched criminal trial. The jury is scheduled to begin deliberations on Tuesday morning.
Rittenhouse and his lawyers have argued that he was acting in self-defense when he shot three people with his AR-15-style rifle. In a dramatic turn on the stand last week, Rittenhouse testified that he feared for his life.
In his closing argument, lead prosecutor Thomas Binger described a chaotic night in which Rittenhouse created and escalated the peril he faced through a series of reckless actions that left other people fearful for their own lives.
“There’s people getting in people’s faces. There’s yelling. There’s shouting. There’s even shoving. And yet, in this entire sequence of events — from the shooting of Jacob Blake on Sunday, Aug. 23, 2020, all the way after that, everything this community went through — the only person who shot and killed anyone was the defendant,” Binger said.
The defense said Rittenhouse was under attack
In response, lead defense attorney Mark Richards described those shot by Rittenhouse as dangerous rioters who were trying to do harm. “It was hell in this area of downtown,” he said.
Richards also attacked the prosecution. He accused them of charging Rittenhouse prematurely in a “rush to judgment.” He suggested that an employee at the state crime lab had manipulated video evidence to make it more helpful to prosecutors. And he told the jury that Binger would “lie to your faces” to get a conviction.
“This case is not a game. It is my client’s life. You don’t play fast and loose with the facts,” Richards said.
Rittenhouse was 17 years old when he traveled to Kenosha and armed himself with an AR-15-style rifle. It was a night of unrest in the city, sparked by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was left paralyzed after an encounter with a white officer. Rittenhouse, who lived across the state line in Antioch, Ill., testified that he intended to act as a medic and help protect private property.
In a series of chaotic encounters with protesters that night, Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, then minutes later shot and killed Anthony Huber, 26, and injured Gaige Grosskreutz, then 26. Rosenbaum was unarmed. Huber was striking Rittenhouse with a skateboard. Grosskreutz was armed with a pistol.
Over the course of closing arguments, prosecutors and defense lawyers traded barbs and accusations that the others had lied. Showing the jury nearly identical photos and videos, the two sides said the evidence showed opposite things: Grosskreutz was pointing the gun; Grosskreutz wasn’t pointing the gun. Rosenbaum threatened Rittenhouse; Rosenbaum didn’t threaten Rittenhouse. An unidentified man batted off Rittenhouse’s hat; the man was trying to “take his head off.”
A key question in the case: Did Rittenhouse provoke violence?
Prosecutors were given a boost Friday when Judge Bruce Schroeder ruled they could argue that Rittenhouse had provoked the initial encounter with Rosenbaum by raising his weapon in the moments before Rosenbaum began to chase him. To show that, prosecutors have relied on video footage shot by a drone a block or so away from the incident, in which Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum can be seen in the distance.
“When the defendant provokes the incident, he loses the right to self-defense. You cannot claim self-defense to a danger you create,” Binger said.
Richards spoke more simply, repeatedly asking the jurors to use their “common sense” in evaluating Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim.
Huber beat him to the ground with a skateboard, Richards said. He repeated Rittenhouse’s belief that Grosskreutz was pointing a pistol at him. Rosenbaum was “irrational and crazy,” he said.
“Kyle shot Joseph Rosenbaum to stop a threat to his person. And I’m glad he shot him,” Richards said. “Because if Joseph Rosenbaum had got that gun, I don’t for a minute believe he wouldn’t have used it against somebody else.”
The task ahead for the jury
Rittenhouse faces five felony counts: first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree attempted intentional homicide and two counts of first-degree recklessly endangering the safety of another. He has pleaded not guilty on all counts.
Jurors may also consider lesser versions of the charges related to the shootings of Huber and Grosskreutz.
On Monday morning, Schroeder dismissed a sixth charge, a misdemeanor related to possession of a dangerous weapon by a minor. Prosecutors brought the charge given Rittenhouse’s age at the time of the shooting, but his defense lawyers successfully argued that a loophole in Wisconsin’s law allows minors to possess guns with barrels 16 inches or longer.