(CNN) — After more than 25 hours of deliberation, a 12-person jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse of the 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 injured. Rittenhouse was charged with five felonies: first-degree murder, first-degree manslaughter, and attempted first-degree murder, and two first-degree counts of recklessly endangering security.
The two-week trial, which captured the attention of the United States and was in many ways emblematic of the divided nation, featured testimony from more than 30 witnesses, including Rittenhouse himself, videos from the night of the shootings, and heated exchanges between the lawyers and the judge.
And while the jury’s decision drew harsh criticism from loved ones of the victims, legal experts say they were not surprised by the verdict.
These were the factors that experts said helped lead to Rittenhouse’s acquittal.
Rittenhouse’s testimony was key
Among the highlights of the trial was testimony from Rittenhouse, who told the court that he was acting in self-defense when he shot Rosenbaum, who said he threatened him before, chased him, threw a bag at him and pounced on his gun. At one point, 18-year-old Rittenhouse burst into tears while on the stand.
“If I had let Mr. Rosenbaum take my firearm from me, he would have used it and killed me with it and probably would have killed more people,” he testified.
Rittenhouse referred to the other people he shot as part of a “mob” chasing him, and told the court that Huber approached him, hit him with a skateboard and grabbed his gun. Rittenhouse shot him once in the chest, killing him. Finally, he said he saw Grosskreutz lash out at him and point a pistol at his head, for which Rittenhouse shot him, he testified.
Defense attorney Mark Richards told reporters Friday that “it was not a close decision” 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. He 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 importantly, number two, he explained his uses of force,” said CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson.
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 that prosecutors ultimately did not undermine, former federal prosecutor Elie Honig said.
“They (the prosecutors) pointed out some kind of minor inconsistencies and things that he said the night of, and said later, but nothing that undermines the central argument of the defense, which was that he was attacked,” Honig told Alisyn Camerota of CNN. “Every time he fired, they attacked him.”
“The prosecution did not make enough of a dent in Kyle Rittenhouse,” Honig added.
The state did not prove that Rittenhouse caused violence
The trial was shortened, according to civil rights attorney Charles F. Coleman Jr., were two competing narratives: one of Rittenhouse being a victim who was attacked and another of being a vigilante who provoked the violence.
“The jury believed the narrative that Kyle Rittenhouse was a victim, they thought his self-defense claim was much stronger than the prosecution’s claim of provocation,” he said.
Wisconsin law allows the use of deadly force only if “it is necessary to prevent imminent death or serious bodily harm.” And because Rittenhouse’s attorneys claimed self-defense, state law meant that the burden fell on prosecutors to rebut that Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.
And it was an uphill battle to climb from the start, due to the facts in this case, experts said.
“(Prosecutors) were unable to show that their 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 of days ago and saw the videos … frame by frame, they were looking to see if Kyle did anything to provoke the threat and if his response to that threat was reasonable in terms of the use of deadly force and they agreed. agreed with the defense that it is, “Azari added.
Additionally, trial testimony challenged many assumptions that previously surrounded the case and even some testimony from state witnesses supported Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim, said criminal defense attorney Bob Bianchi.
Former Marine Corps 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, video editor for the news site The Daily Caller, testified that Rosenbaum had pounced on the front of Rittenhouse’s rifle moments before he was shot. Grosskreutz, who was injured, testified that he pointed a pistol at Rittenhouse and later clarified to prosecutors during redirection questioning that he never intentionally pointed his gun at Rittenhouse.
“The prosecution … has to refute the legitimate defense beyond a reasonable doubt before the 12 members of the jury. How do you do that when you don’t see any real provocation?” Bianchi said. “There wasn’t a real trial attorney … who wouldn’t sit here and say this is an incredibly good self-defense case.”
Prosecutors also took missteps
The state also made mistakes, including exaggerating the case by trying to paint Rittenhouse as an active attacker, said Honig, the former federal prosecutor.
In his closing arguments earlier this week, Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger said Rittenhouse behaved in a way that no reasonable person would, provoked the incident, recklessly fired his gun, lied in numerous times and, as a result, the crowd had the right to “try to stop an active attacker.”
“Trying to brand Kyle Rittenhouse as an active hitter didn’t hold up and the defense came back and showed, here he’s walking the streets, he’s not shooting indiscriminately, that’s what an active hitter does, he only shoots people who have. attacked first, “Honig said.
Rittenhouse’s defense attorney also pointed to the prosecution’s active attacker’s argument during his press conference, saying that “justice is done when the truth is reached.”
“A prosecutor is supposed to seek the truth,” Richards added.
Also, trying to paint Rittenhouse as provocative because he brought an AR-15 firearm didn’t work because of the gun culture in Wisconsin, which doesn’t always necessarily equate to criminal activity, legal experts told CNN.
“You have to remember that you are in a jurisdiction where this is not unusual,” Bianchi said.
Honig added that the prosecution team made other mistakes, leading to heated exchanges with Judge Bruce Schroeder. The judge twice reprimanded Binger for his line of questioning: once for implicating Rittenhouse’s silence after his arrest (a right guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment) and then for touching on issues related to an incident that the judge had ruled was not. it would allow him to enter as evidence.
“That’s an absolute fan move by prosecutors,” Honig said.
Jury Instructions Were Consistent, Expert Says
Ultimately, the jury’s instructions also helped lead to Rittenhouse’s acquittal, CNN senior legal analyst Laura Coates said.
Coates said the instructions said jurors had to see the case through the eyes of Rittenhouse, then 17, not hindsight, and evaluate the reasonableness of his actions.
“The jury’s instructions really focused on that term ‘reasonable.’ Defining the word “reasonable”. And the jury’s instructions required this jury to look through the lens and perspective of Kyle Rittenhouse. Not the quarterback this Monday morning, not the jurors, not the court of public opinion in hindsight, “Coates said.” What would you reasonably think and what did you reasonably believe about the possibility of threat or lethal harm and serious bodily harm? “
That, combined with having to rebut Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim and show that he caused the violence during the chaotic night, meant that “the deck was against” prosecutors, Coates said.
“With all of that combined, it’s not surprising that an acquittal occurred, but it really came down to the jury’s instruction on looking through the eyes of Kyle Rittenhouse,” Coates said.
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Legal experts explain what helped acquit Kyle Rittenhouse