MADISON, Wis. – Attorneys spent the first week of Kyle Rittenhouse's murder trial sparring over who provoked whom, with prosecutors portraying the Illinois teenager as the aggressor and the defense working to show that the men he shot had threatened him.
The stakes are enormous as jurors weigh whether Rittenhouse fired in self-defense because he legitimately felt threatened or whether he overreacted.
“To establish self-defense, the first prong is the defense must show there was going to be interference with Rittenhouse and that Rittenhouse had a belief that could result in great bodily harm,” said former Milwaukee County prosecutor Daniel Adams, who isn't involved in the case.
Rittenhouse brought a semi-automatic rifle to a protest against police brutality in Kenosha in August 2020. The city was in the throes of several nights of chaotic demonstrations after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, after Blake resisted arrest during a domestic dispute. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, said he was trying to protect downtown businesses from looters and vandals. He's charged with homicide and attempted homicide, as well as being a minor in possession of a dangerous weapon.
Just before midnight, he shot and killed Rosenbaum as Rosenbaum chased him across a parking lot. As Rittenhouse fled the scene someone in the crowd tried to kick him in the face and Anthony Huber swung his skateboard at him, connecting with Rittenhouse's head and neck. Rittenhouse fatally shot Huber. A moment later Gaige Grosskreutz ran up to him holding a pistol. Rittenhouse shot him in the arm; Grosskreutz survived.
Rittenhouse insists he fired in self-defense in all three instances. The jury will ultimately have to decide whether Rittenhouse reasonably believed he was in danger and whether the amount of force he used was reasonable.
That means defense attorney Mark Richards needs to make jurors understand that Rittenhouse was terrified, Adams said.
Judge Bruce Schroeder gave the defense some help earlier this year when he barred anyone from referring to Rosenbaum, Huber or Grosskreutz as victims, saying the term is “loaded” because it implies the defendant committed a crime against them before anything has been proven. The judge gave Rittenhouse another boost when he ruled last month that his attorneys could refer to the men as “rioters,” “looters” and “arsonists” if they can show evidence backing up those labels.
Richards went on the offensive during opening statements on Tuesday, telling jurors that Huber intended to “separate (Rittenhouse's) head from the body" when he hit him with the skateboard and tried to wrest his gun away.
Richards also has worked to persuade the jury that Rosenbaum was a menace. He got a police detective to testify that at various points during the night, Rosenbaum armed himself with a chain he stole from a construction site, set a Dumpster on fire and was walking around wearing his shirt as a mask.
Ryan Balch, a military veteran who carried a rifle and was with Rittenhouse at points, testified that Rosenbaum was “hyperaggressive,” had thrown rocks at his group and had threatened to kill “any of you guys” that he found alone that night. But another former veteran who was armed in the streets, Jason Lackowski, described Rosenbaum as a “babbling idiot” whom he didn't see as a threat.
With images from FBI surveillance plane video, Richards highlighted Rosenbaum's movement behind a car, emerging as Rittenhouse ran past and chasing him down in the moments before Rittenhouse shot him.
The defense attorney, describing how Rosenbaum came out from behind a car to meet Rittenhouse before the shooting, said to the detective: “Correct me if I’m wrong, but this looks like the classic ambush.”
Prosecutors quickly objected, and Richards said: “Mr. Rosenbaum is in hiding as my client arrives, correct?”
“It appears so, yes,” Howard answered.
Richard McGinniss, a video journalist with the conservative website The Daily Caller who was recording events that night, testified that Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse down and lunged for Rittenhouse's rifle.
Richards also noted in his opening statement that Grosskreutz was carrying a handgun when he approached Rittenhouse.
“What he's trying to do is put the jury in the shoes of Rittenhouse (and show) that the dread, the fear and the terror is real,” Adams said. “When you're being attacked by several people, he doesn't know (their intentions). What he thinks is he's going to get his gun stripped off and used against him.”
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger has pushed back, stressing repeatedly that Rosenbaum was unarmed when he was killed. He also has argued that Rittenhouse provoked Rosenbaum during a confrontation earlier that evening and that Rittenhouse chased him with a fire extinguisher before Rosenbaum turned the tables.
He got Balch to acknowledge on the stand that he never saw Rosenbaum strike anyone or carry a weapon. Binger also questioned McGinniss' description of Rosenbaum lunging toward Rittenhouse, raising the prospect that Rosenbaum was actually falling toward him — as McGinniss had said in a televised interview after the shootings.
Binger also has argued that Huber and Grosskreutz were trying to disarm Rittenhouse to protect others. He has said that Grosskreutz raised his hands in a universal “surrender” motion before he was shot. Richards maintains he dropped his hands and began to raise his pistol.
Prosecutors had hoped to highlight Huber's actions as heroic in questioning his great-aunt, Susan Hughes, who also testified that Huber had known Jacob Blake. But Schroeder ruled that such testimony would open the door for the defense to tell jurors about Huber spending time in prison for a family dispute in 2012 in which he threatened his brother with a knife and choked him.
The prosecutor also contends that in all the chaos of that night, Rittenhouse was the only one who killed anyone. He elicited testimony from Rittenhouse's friend, Dominick Black, who also went to the protests armed with a rifle to protect businesses, that people had thrown rocks at him but that he didn't feel his life was in danger.
“I mean, pain, yes, but not danger,” Black said. “I knew it wasn't going to kill me.”
“So you felt like it wasn't enough to use deadly force, correct?” Binger said.
“Correct,” Black said.