18-year-old acquitted on five charges, reignites controversy across the country

Joe Powis, Journalist

On November 19th, 2021, after 25 hours of extensive deliberations over the course of four days, a Wisconsin jury reached a unanimous verdict: 18 year old Kyle Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all five of the counts he was facing. The decision sparked both outrage and celebration, and reopened a massive cut that has divided our country over the past year.

Following last year’s police shooting of Jacob Blake, riots and civil unrest tore through the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin, leaving behind a massive trail of extensive property damage and looting of local businesses. On August 25, 2020, then-17-year-old Illinois native Kyle Rittenhouse and his good friend Dominick Black were asked to help protect Car Source, a local used car business. Car Source had suffered large amounts of destruction to its multiple car lots during riots on the nights prior, and the owner wanted to ensure his business’s safety. Rittenhouse, a local lifeguard and member of a cadet program back in Illinois, brought along a medical bag to provide first aid to anyone in need of it during the protests. He also brought along an AR-15 assault rifle, which he claimed was for protection. For the majority of the night, Rittenhouse was able to stay out of trouble and stick with his self-appointed duties of delivering first aid in the streets. That was until 11:48, when a man began to follow him and eventually  threatened Rittenhouse with a metal chain and threw a bag at him. Now backed into a corner, Rittenhouse responded by firing four shots at the man, killing him. The victim would later be revealed as Joseph Rosenbaum, a troubled man with extensive mental issues and a concerning criminal record. Following the initial shooting, a mob began pursuing Rittenhouse, who was trying to make his way back to the Car Source he was stationed at the start of the night. It was at that point when the mob reached him as he fell to the ground, and a man lept at and proceeded to kick Rittenhouse in the face. In response, Rittenhouse fired two shots at the man, both missing. While still on the ground, another protestor, a man named Anthony Huber, struck Rittenhouse with his skateboard, and in retaliation, Rittenhouse fired once at Huber, hitting him in the chest. The single shot penetrated Huber’s heart and right lung, leading to his rapid death. The final victim of the night, a man by the name of Gaige Grosskreutz, saw Rittenhouse shoot Huber, resulting in Grosskreutz putting his hands up. It was at that point when Grosskreutz, visibly armed with a Glock pistol, pointed his weapon at Rittenhouse, leading to Rittenhouse firing once more and striking Grosskreutz in the arm. The 17 year old, overrun by adrenaline and in shock, was finally able to get up and make his way to the police line, in an attempt to turn himself in. The police turned him away, as they had received calls about an “active shooter”. Neither the police nor Rittenhouse realized they were in fact seeking each other, and he decided his next best option was to find his friend Dominick Black. After the two finally linked, they were able to leave Kenosha and drive back to Illinois, and upon arriving home, Kyle and his mother drove down to the Antioch Police Station in Antioch, Illinois. There he was finally able to report the fatal events, and the disastrous night finally came to a close.

No one was prepared for the chaos that ensued, as initial reports and videos taken of the shootings quickly led to two different stories being told. On one hand, he was portrayed as an ignorant republican Trump-supporter portrayed as a white supremacist acting as a vigilante and committing acts of terrorism, who took to the streets with a dangerous weapon that he should not have been allowed to possess, and proceeded to intentionally murder two innocent protestors and injured another. The other; a young, American hero, operating within his rights, who had no choice but to fire in self defense at the four men who attacked him, leading to the three casualties, including the two deaths. Social media erupted, as users ranging from household celebrities to everyday people, made their feelings and opinions known. It felt as though it was just another log thrown into the raging fire that burned at the center of our country, politically divided over social injustice.

More left-leaning and Democratic supporters demanded justice for the victims, and called for Rittenhouse to be sentenced for life, and pointed to the shootings as yet another example of racial inequality in our country. They cited the videos of Kyle seemingly walking up to the police line and getting turned away without any questioning, just moments after he shot and killed a man, as an example of racism within our law enforcement and white privilege. They labeled Kyle as a white supremacist and as a terrorist, who had no business protesting along with the Black Lives Matter demonstrators, and whose only reason for being there was to threaten and cause harm to the protestors. There was a particular interest in how Kyle was even allowed to possess the weapon he had that night, as he was under 18 at the time and how he had crossed state borders in order to attend the protests. 

However, supporters of the Republican party and those with more right-wing beliefs showed Kyle an overwhelming amount of support. Those who believed Kyle was acting in self-defense and praised his decision to fire upon those who attacked him had a chance to back up their words, when in November of 2020, Kyle’s bond was set at a hefty price of 2 million dollars. Through multiple forms of fundraising, enough money was quickly raised for Kyle to be able to return home before his trial. Kyle was a supporter of then-president Donald Trump and the “Blue Lives Matter” counter movement, and had similar beliefs to those who supported him, which was one of the main reasons as to why almost half the country came to his defense. Word around Rittenhouse began to die down from both sides as the country seemed to move beyond the events of the summer of 2020, but all eyes would be focused oh him over a year later, as his murder trial was to be held in November of 2021. 

The trial started on the first day of the month, in Kenosha County Circuit Court. Over 30 witnesses would testify over the multi-week event, in front of a 20-member panel consisting of 12 jurors and 8 alternates. The judge presiding over the case was Judge Bruce Schroeder, a democrat who is known as the longest serving judge in the state of Wisconsin. The main characters on Kyle’s defense team consisted of lead lawyer Mark Richards along with Rittenhouse himself. On the opposing side of the courtroom stood Kenosha County assistant district attorney Thomas Binger, who had the tall task of proving Rittenhouse guilty. Over a dozen videos taken on the night of the shootings would be viewed in order to assist the jury to determine whether or not Rittenhouse was guilty of the following counts: first-degree reckless homicide (for killing Joseph Rosenbaum), first-degree intentional homicide (for killing Anthony Huber), attempted first-degree intentional homicide (for shooting and injuring Gaige Grosskreutz), first-degree recklessly endangering safety (two counts). Two more counts were to be reviewed during the trial, but they were dismissed under Schroeder’s discretion.  

Jeffery Krieger, a social studies teacher at Ipswich High with a vast amount of political knowledge and a highly respected voice throughout the school, perfectly described the situation  the prosecution was in. “From my knowledge, they had a difficult case. The prosecution has the burden of proof, and they had to prove intentional actions that were unjustified… the judge seemed, at times, to limit what the prosecution could and couldn’t do.” Facing an uphill battle from the beginning, Binger got off to a rough start when he questioned Rittenhouse’s decision to not talk about the incident after it happened – a well known right within the fifth amendment. Binger and the prosecution continued to make questionable decisions by inquiring why Rittenhouse had run away from a fire, asking about his TikTok username, and other seemingly irrelevant questions. After a both strong and elaborate testimony from Rittenhouse himself, the writing was pretty much on the wall, as the prosecution had pretty much choked away any chance there was to have the defense convicted. The jury came forward and announced their verdict, declaring Rittenhouse not guilty on all counts. 

It wasn’t long before the decision was made known to the world, as various social media platforms became flooded with the news, a seemingly even split between those who were disgusted with the verdict, and those who were elated to see Kyle walk free. Evan Stein, a senior at Ipswich High School, had been following the case since the first events went down over two years ago. I sat down with Evan to talk about the situation as a whole, starting off by asking him how he recalled the night when he first heard about the incident, with him responding with “I don’t remember much except that I heard about a shooting at one of the BLM riots.” Stein was among the ones who were shocked at how poorly the prosecution acted during the trial, comically stating “I thought that they were a bunch of idiots that had no clue how to work in a courthouse. He violated Kyle’s rights multiple times in the cross examination. I think I could’ve done a better job than them.” After our conversation, one of Stein’s answers stuck with me more than any others, that being his take on the ongoing controversy surrounding the verdict. “The only reason why there is controversy is because of the fact that the shooting happened at a BLM protest. If this was just a couple random people jumping Kyle and he killed them in self defense, I doubt that any of us would have even heard about the case.” His answer made me think a little differently about the case.

Evan wasn’t the only one I spoke to, as I wanted multiple opinions when writing about this topic. As I already mentioned earlier, I was joined by Jeffery Krieger one day after school to discuss the events that happened in Kenosha back in 2020. Krieger started off by giving his thoughts on the current status of our nation, his words being “It’s very sad… there’s a lot of anger in the country… We have to do something as a nation to fix racial tensions, and we have a lot of work to do.” I wasn’t sure of what to expect from our conversation, as I made sure not to ask about his personal political beliefs when I set up our interview, so I came into it with a rather open mind. I was impressed with how unbiased and fair he answered my question pertaining to how the media portrayed Rittenhouse, as he stated “It’s case by case… There were certain media outlets that portrayed him acting in self defense, perhaps even heroic, and then there were those who rushed to judgment… I think both sides of the political spectrum needed to wait to see justice be done.” When it came to the actual trial, Krieger admitted that he didn’t actually have a prediction, and was more interested in seeing what evidence would be presented. To finish off our dialogue, I asked about what his thoughts on the verdict were, and he gave a respectable response. “I agree with the verdict because I agree with the legal system. The only way for me to agree or disagree with the actual verdict would be to watch the entire trial… I can say it didn’t surprise me, a guilty or not guilty verdict would not have surprised me.” He closed by talking about how he felt as though the victims’ names were lost throughout the entire ordeal, to which I agreed.

Looking back at the events occurring over two summers ago, and the trial which tied it all up this past November, there was no real surprise seeing how both sides of our politically divided country reacted. What was a surprise to me, however, was how much I learned after speaking with two members of our school and community. After speaking with Mr. Krieger, I unlocked a whole new perspective on not just this case, but the American justice system as a whole, and was exposed to a whole new view on the controversy after speaking with Evan.