After several days of jury deliberation, Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty last week of murdering two people and injuring another during racial justice protests last summer in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Activists on both sides of the political spectrum were quick to spin what the verdict meant for their movements or what the judge’s and jury’s motivations were. This post attempts to cut through the noise and answer the question of why the jury found Rittenhouse not guilty.
Rittenhouse Successfully Argues Self-Defense
Rittenhouse faced charges of first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree intentional homicide, first-degree reckless endangerment, attempted first-degree intentional homicide, and possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18 (more on that charge below).
Neither the defense nor prosecution disputed that Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz.
Instead, Rittenhouse’s defense argued that he acted in self-defense, while the prosecution argued that Rittenhouse provoked violence that night in Kenosha.
Rittenhouse, testifying in his own defense, said that he had no choice but to use deadly force against Rosenbaum, who he said was chasing him and trying to take his gun. He said that Huber hit him in the head with a skateboard and also grabbed his gun. He said Grosskreutz pointed a gun at him.
Wisconsin’s Self-Defense Law
Under Wisconsin law, people have the right to use deadly force if they “reasonably” believe that it’s necessary “to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.”
Unlike some states, Wisconsin law also does not require someone in Rittenhouse’s situation to “retreat” before using deadly force. The law assumes that the shooter has already considered retreating and decided that deadly force is the last resort.
The prosecution argued that Rittenhouse, by traveling to the scene of an ongoing riot armed with an AR-15 and staying out past curfew, was inviting trouble for himself and that he used excessive force. However, the jury saw things the way the defense presented them.
“If you’ve got them to believe that everything he did was to defend his life and his life was at risk, that if he wouldn’t have shot those men he’d be dead himself — that’s it,” high-profile criminal defense attorney Lara Yeretsian told USA Today. “If you believe him when he says self-defense, then you have to acquit him.”
What Happened to the Gun Charge?
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the murder charges, most thought Rittenhouse would be convicted on the misdemeanor gun charge. However, Judge Bruce Schroeder dismissed that charge earlier this week.
Rittenhouse was 17 at the time of the shootings, which meant that under Wisconsin law it was illegal for him to possess the AR-15 he used. However, Schroeder agreed with the defense’s motion that the law only applies to what are essentially sawed-off rifles and shotguns, along with pistols or other types of weapons, which Rittenhouse didn’t have. The exception likely exists to allow teens to hunt.
In short, the lives of Rittenhouse and the three men he shot would all be different had he stayed home that night. And it’s reasonable to argue that many of the legislators who wrote these laws probably didn’t imagine armed protests and counter-protests becoming a weekly activity in the U.S. However, the law in Wisconsin is still on Rittenhouse’s side.
- Learn More About Self-Defense Laws (FindLaw’s Learn About the Law)
- Use of ‘Victim’ in High-Profile Murder Trials Getting Attention (FindLaw’s Courtside)
- When Can You Legally Use a Gun in Self-Defense? (FindLaw’s Criminal Defense Blog)
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