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Rittenhouse trial goes to opening statements after jury set

Kyle Rittenhouse and defense attorney Natalie Wisco at a break during jury selection on the first day of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial in Kenosha Circuit Court Monday November 1, 2021. Rittenhouse faces seven charges including one count each of First Degree Intentional Homicide, First Degree Reckless Homicide, and Attempted First Degree Intentional Homicide. Rittenhouse, then 17, shot three people, two of them fatally during the unrest that followed the shooting of Jacob Blake seven times by a Kenosha police officer.
Mark Hertzberg
ZUMA Press Wire via Pool
Kyle Rittenhouse and defense attorney Natalie Wisco at a break during jury selection on the first day of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial in Kenosha Circuit Court Monday Nov. 1, 2021.

In the Kyle Rittenhouse trial in Kenosha Circuit Court, jury selection wrapped up after seven o'clock last night, and opening statements are expected today. Rittenhouse faces seven charges including one count each of First Degree Intentional Homicide, First Degree Reckless Homicide, and Attempted First Degree Intentional Homicide for shooting two men to death and wounding another last year during protests following the police shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake Jr.

Rittenhouse, now 18-year-old, is claiming self-defense.

Kenosha Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder, prosecutors, and the defense team spent hours interviewing potential jurors yesterday. Some of the discussion was about firearms and juror safety.

About a dozen prospective jurors were dismissed Monday after they expressed strong opinions about the case or worried that they couldn’t be fair. Others worried about their personal safety — “No one wants to be sitting in this chair,” one woman said — but the 20-member panel was finally set by early evening.

“I figure either way this goes you’re going to have half the country upset with you and they react poorly,” said another woman, a special education teacher who expressed anxiety about serving. She was chosen.

Schroeder stopped one potential juror when he told the court he believed in the Second Amendment, meaning gun rights.

"This is not a political trial. One of the problems with the way the media has covered this is — and it's not just the media — it was mentioned by both political campaigns in the presidential campaign last year. In some instances, very, very imprudently," Schroeder said.

After a few potential jurors said they were worried about guns, especially the type of large rifle Rittenhouse used, and are concerned for their safety if they have to issue a controversial verdict later this month.

Schroeder told them not to worry.

"There are measures that will be taken with the jury selected to deal with those fears. I think your fears will be substantially diminished once you're made aware of them, but I'm not going to talk about them right now because they're less effective than if I do," Schroeder said.

The jury in the politically charged case must decide whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, as his lawyers claim, or was engaged in vigilantism when the 17-year-old opened fire with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle in August 2020, killing two men and wounding a third.

Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha from his home in Illinois during unrest that broke out after a white Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back. Rittenhouse said he went there to protect property after two previous nights marked by arson, gunfire and the ransacking of businesses.

The now-18-year-old Rittenhouse faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree homicide, the most serious charge against him.

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.

As jury selection got underway, Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder stressed repeatedly that jurors must decide the case solely on what they hear in the courtroom, and cautioned: “This is not a political trial.”

The judge said Rittenhouse’s constitutional right to a fair trial, not the Second Amendment right to bear arms, will come into play, and “I don’t want it to get sidetracked into other issues.”

One of the jurors is a gun-owning woman with a high school education who said she was so afraid during the protests that she pulled her cars to the back of her house and made sure her doors were locked. She said she went downtown in the aftermath and cried.

Another juror, a man, said he owns a gun and has it for “home defense.” Another is a pharmacist who said that she was robbed at gunpoint in 2012 but that it would have no effect on her ability to weigh the evidence in this case.

Among those dropped from the case were a man who said he was at the site of the protests when “all that happened” and a woman who said she watched a livestream video of the events and wasn’t sure if she could put aside what she saw.

One person was dropped from the case after she said she believes in the Biblical injunction “Thou shall not kill,” even in cases of self-defense.

Prosecutor Thomas Binger also moved to dismiss a woman who said that she has a biracial granddaughter who participated in some of the protests and that she could not be impartial. Rittenhouse’s attorneys had no objection.

Rittenhouse’s attorney got a prospective juror dropped after she said she would find Rittenhouse guilty of all charges just because he was carrying an assault-style weapon. “I don’t think a weapon like that should belong to the general public,” the woman said.

The prosecutors, defense team, and judge eventually settled on 34 jurors, with that number then shaved to 20 jurors to listen to testimony.

Rittenhouse fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, after Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse across a parking lot and threw a plastic bag at him shortly before midnight on Aug. 25. Moments later, as Rittenhouse was running down a street, he shot and killed Anthony Huber, 26, a protester from Silver Lake, Wisconsin, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, a protester from West Allis, Wisconsin.

Bystander video captured Rosenbaum chasing Rittenhouse but not the actual shooting. Video showed Huber swinging a skateboard at Rittenhouse before he was shot. Grosskreutz had a gun in his hand as he stepped toward Rittenhouse.

Rittenhouse faces two homicide counts and one of attempted homicide, along with charges of reckless endangering and illegal possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18.

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