KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — Kyle Rittenhouse instigated the confrontation that led him to shoot three people on the streets of Kenosha during a turbulent protest against racial injustice, and he killed one of the victims with a shot to the back, a prosecutor told the jury during opening statements Tuesday at Rittenhouse’s murder trial.
But Rittenhouse’s attorney said his client was kicked and hit with a skateboard that night and acted in self-defense, telling the jury it will “end up looking at it from the standpoint of a 17-year-old under the circumstances as they existed.”
Rittenhouse, now 18, is charged with killing two men and wounding a third during the summer of 2020 with an assault-style rifle. He could get life in prison if convicted.
The one-time aspiring police officer traveled to Kenosha from his home in Illinois, just across the Wisconsin state line, after protests broke out over the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back by a white Kenosha police officer. Rittenhouse said he went there to protect property after two nights in which rioters set fires and ransacked businesses.
In his opening statement, prosecutor Thomas Binger described the unrest as “two of the roughest nights that our community has ever seen,” and said that outsiders were drawn to Kenosha “like moths to a flame.”
Yet Binger repeatedly stressed that amid the hundreds of people in Kenosha and the anger and chaos in the streets, “the only person who killed anyone is the defendant, Kyle Rittenhouse.”
Binger told the jury that self-defense can be a valid claim only if Rittenhouse reasonably believed that he was using deadly force to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.
The prosecutor said that it is not known exactly what words were said, but it is clear that Rittenhouse started a confrontation that caused the first person shot that night, Joseph Rosenbaum, to begin chasing Rittenhouse across a parking lot.
Binger emphasized, too, that Rosenbaum, 36, was killed by a shot to the back after he threw a plastic bag. The prosecutor noted that the first two bullets hit Rosenbaum in the lower extremities, causing him to fall forward.
Binger also said that after shooting Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse fled the scene instead of rendering aid, despite portraying himself as a medic earlier in the night. The crowd “clearly believed” Rittenhouse was an active shooter, the prosecutor said.
Moments later, as Rittenhouse was running down a street, he shot and killed Anthony Huber, 26, a protester from Silver Lake, Wisconsin, who was seen on bystander video swinging a skateboard at Rittenhouse. He wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, a protester from West Allis, Wisconsin, who had a gun in his hand as he stepped toward Rittenhouse.
But defense attorney Mark Richards said it was Rosenbaum who “lit the fuse that night.” Richards also said that someone else in the crowd fired the first shot of the evening as Rittenhouse was being chased by Rosenbaum.
The defense attorney portrayed Rittenhouse as a victim, saying that Huber was “trying to separate the head from the body” with the skateboard that he swung at Rittenhouse.
Richards also apparently pushed back against the notion that Rittenhouse was an outsider drawn to Kenosha by social media. He said Rittenhouse had strong ties to Kenosha — his father lived there and Rittenhouse worked in Kenosha County as a lifeguard — and that he had seen livestreams of what was happening.
The prosecutor said there was nothing wrong with Rittenhouse offering to protect Car Source, a used car dealership where the first shooting occurred. But he repeated that amid all the chaos, only one person killed anyone.
“When we consider the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions, I ask you to keep this in mind,” he said.
Rittenhouse looked on with apparent calm in a dark pinstriped suit and tie. He occasionally fidgeted with a water bottle or glanced toward the jury box. His mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, sat behind him.
The jury was selected with remarkable speed in just one day Monday, considering how politically polarizing the case has proved. The most serious count against Rittenhouse, first-degree intentional homicide, is Wisconsin’s top murder charge.
Twenty people in all were selected to hear the case: 12 jurors and eight alternates. Eleven are women and nine are men. The court did not immediately provide a racial breakdown of the group, but it appeared to be overwhelmingly white.
Rittenhouse has been painted by supporters on the right — including foes of the Black Lives Matter movement — as a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness by demonstrators and exercised his Second Amendment gun rights. Others see him as a vigilante and police wannabe.
He is white, as were those he shot, but many activists see an undercurrent of race in the case, in part because the protesters were on the streets to decry police violence against Black people.
Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin, Forliti from Minneapolis. Associated Press writer Tammy Webber contributed from Fenton, Michigan.
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