After more than 25 hours of deliberations, a 12-person jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse of all five charges he faced after fatally shooting two people and wounding a third during protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last summer.
Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, were killed, and Gaige Grosskreutz, now 27, was wounded. Rittenhouse was charged with five felonies: first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless homicide, attempted first-degree intentional homicide and two counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety.
The two-week trial – which captured America’s attention and was in many ways emblematic of the divided nation – featured testimony from more than 30 witnesses, including Rittenhouse himself, video clips from the night of the shootings and heated exchanges between the attorneys and the judge.
And while the jury’s decision drew harsh criticism from the victims’ loved ones, legal experts say they were not surprised by the verdict.
These were the factors experts said helped lead to Rittenhouse’s acquittal.
Rittenhouse’s testimony was key
Among the trial’s most key moments was the testimony from Rittenhouse, who told the court he acted in self-defense when he shot Rosenbaum, who he said threatened him earlier, chased him, threw a bag at him and lunged for his gun. At one point, 18-year-old Rittenhouse broke down in tears while on the stand.
“If I would have let Mr. Rosenbaum take my firearm from me, he would have used it and killed me with it and probably killed more people,” he testified.
Rittenhouse referred to the other people he shot at as part of a “mob” chasing him, telling the court Huber came at him, struck him with a skateboard, and grabbed his gun. Rittenhouse shot him once in the chest, killing him. Finally, he said he saw Grosskreutz lunge at him and point a pistol at his head, so Rittenhouse shot him, he testified.
Defense attorney Mark Richards told reporters Friday in his mind, ‘it wasn’t a close call’ whether to put Rittenhouse on the stand.
“We had a mock jury and we did two different juries, one with him testifying and one without him testifying. It was substantially better when he testified… and that sealed it,” Richards said. “If you don’t put a client on the stand, you’re going to lose, period.”
His testimony was key for several reasons, according to legal experts.
“Number one, you humanize him… More important, number two, he explained his uses of force,” CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson said.
Rittenhouse’s testimony gave jurors the ability to hear what he thought at the time and whether he believed he was in danger – a claim the prosecution, ultimately failed to undermine, former federal prosecutor Elie Honig said.
“They (prosecutors) pointed out some sort of minor inconsistencies and things he said on the night of, and said later, but nothing that undermines sort of the core defense argument, which was, he was attacked,” Honig told CNN’s Alisyn Camerota on Friday. “Every time he shot, he was attacked.”
“The prosecution did not make enough of a dent in Kyle Rittenhouse,” Honig added.
State did not prove Rittenhouse provoked violence
What the trial came down to, according to civil rights attorney Charles F. Coleman Jr. were two competing narratives: one of Rittenhouse being a victim who was attacked, and one of being a vigilante who provoked the violence.
“The jury bought the narrative of Kyle Rittenhouse being a victim, they thought that his self-defense claim was a lot stronger than the prosecution’s provocation claim,” he said.
Wisconsin law allows the use of deadly force only if “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.” And because Rittenhouse’s attorneys claimed self-defense, state law meant the burden fell on prosecutors to disprove Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.
And it was an uphill battle to climb from the start, because of the facts in this case, experts said.
“(Prosecutors) weren’t able to show that his response to each of these men, to each of these sets of threats was unreasonable,” criminal defense attorney Sara Azari told CNN’s Pamela Brown.
“When the jury came back a couple days ago and watched the videos… frame by frame, they were looking to see whether Kyle did something to provoke the threat and whether his response to that threat was reasonable in terms of using deadly force and they agreed with the defense that it was,” Azari added.
In addition, testimony from the trial challenged many assumptions previously surrounding the case and even some testimony from the state’s witnesses supported Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim, said criminal defense attorney Bob Bianchi.
Former Marine Jason Lackowski, who testified for the state, said Rosenbaum acted “belligerently” and asked to be shot but was not perceived as a serious threat. Richie McGinniss, a video editor with The Daily Caller news site, testified Rosenbaum had lunged for the front of Rittenhouse’s rifle moments before he was shot. Grosskreutz, who was wounded, testified he pointed a pistol at Rittenhouse and later clarified to the prosecution during redirect questioning he never intentionally pointed his gun at Rittenhouse.
“The prosecution … has to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt to all 12 jurors. How do you do that when you saw no real provocation going on?” Bianchi said. “There wasn’t a real trial lawyer … that didn’t sit here and say this is an amazingly good self-defense case.”
Prosecutors also took missteps
There were mistakes the state made as well, including overselling the case by trying to paint Rittenhouse as an active shooter, Honig, the former federal prosecutor, said.
In his closing arguments earlier this week, Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger said Rittenhouse behaved in a way no reasonable person would, provoked the incident, fired his gun recklessly, lied numerous times and as a result, the crowd had a right “to try and stop an active shooter.”
“Trying to brand Kyle Rittenhouse as an active shooter did not stand up and the defense came back and showed, here he is walking through the streets, he’s not shooting indiscriminately, that’s what an active shooter does, he’s only shooting people who have attacked him first,” Honig said.
Rittenhouse’s defense attorney also pointed to the prosecution’s active shooter argument during his news conference, saying, “justice is done when the truth is reached.”
“A prosecutor is supposed to seek the truth,” Richards added.
In addition, trying to paint Rittenhouse as provocative because he brought an AR-15 firearm did not work because of the culture of guns in Wisconsin, which aren’t necessarily always equated with criminal activity, legal experts told CNN.
‘You’ve got to remember you’re in a jurisdiction where this is not an unusual thing,” Bianchi said.
Honig added the prosecution team made other mistakes, which led to heated exchanges with Judge Bruce Schroeder. The judge twice admonished Binger for his line of questioning – once for implicating Rittenhouse’s silence after his arrest (a right guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment) and later for touching on questions related to an incident the judge had ruled would not be permitted to come into evidence.
“That is an absolute amateur move by the prosecutors,” Honig said.
Jury instructions were consequential, expert says
Finally, the jury instructions also helped lead to Rittenhouse’s acquittal, CNN senior legal analyst Laura Coates said.
Coates said the instructions said jurors had to look at the case through the eyes of then 17-year-old Rittenhouse, not in hindsight, and assess the reasonableness of his actions.
“The jury instructions were really centered around that term ‘reasonable.’ Defining the word ‘reasonable.’ And the jury instructions required this jury to look through the lens and perspective of Kyle Rittenhouse. Not Monday morning quarterback, not the jurors, or the court of public opinion in hindsight,” Coates said. “What would he reasonably and what did he reasonably believe about the possibility of a lethal threat or harm and grave bodily harm?”
That, in combination with having to disprove Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim and show he provoked the violence during the chaotic night, meant the”deck was stacked against” prosecutors, Coates said.
“With all that combined, it’s not surprising that an acquittal happened, but it came down really to that jury instruction about looking through the eyes of Kyle Rittenhouse,” Coates said.