EXPLAINER: Days 1-3 of the homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse
AUDREY NOWAKOWSKI, HOST:
After picking a jury in quick order after only one day, a feat in a trial with such a national spotlight, the state’s case is underway in the murder trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.
The issue is not whether Rittenhouse killed two people and injured a third after he went armed with a military-style semi-automatic weapon to defend businesses in Kenosha during rioting and looting.
The central issue is self-defense, whether Rittenhouse reasonably believed that opening fire on people was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself.
To get more insights into how the trial is unfolding, we’re checking in with WUWM reporter Maayan Silver, who’s been watching the proceedings. Maayan, thanks for being here today.
MAAYAN SILVER, BYLINE: Thanks, Audrey.
NOWAKOWSKI: So let’s start with some basics of the trial. What has Rittenhouse been charged with?
SILVER: Kyle Rittenhouse is being tried on six criminal counts, including first degree intentional homicide, which could result in life in prison if convicted.
The bottom line is that he shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and injured Gage Grosskreutz during unrest in Kenosha on the evening of Aug. 25. But the defense is arguing that he did so in self-defense.
NOWAKOWSKI: So how does self-defense factor in here?
SILVER: The law of self-defense allows someone to use deadly force only if necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm. There’s a two-part test.
First, jurors have to decide if Rittenhouse sincerely believed he was facing imminent danger. Next, they must determine if that belief was objectively “reasonable.” They have to consider, basically, a reasonable person in Rittenhouse’s shoes.
NOWAKOWSKI: Ok, so can you remind us of the circumstances leading up to the charges?
SILVER: It all unfolded after protests erupted because of the shooting of Jacob Blake, Jr. by Kenosha police during a 9-1-1 call on Aug. 23. There were orderly protests during the day. Jacob Blake’s family announced that he was paralyzed from the waist down, and his family called for calm. But it got chaotic at night.
NOWAKOWSKI: So you mentioned chaos. Can you give us a little more background on what the streets were like the night of the shootings in August of 2020?
SILVER: So the shootings were the third night of unrest after Jacob Blake, Jr. was shot by police. There had been clashing between police and the crowd at Civic Center Park which is right downtown near the Kenosha County Courthouse – where the case is actually being tried.
People were throwing objects and fireworks at the police, police were releasing tear gas, and ultimately police pushed the crowds further north on Sheridan Road which is parallel to the courthouse. Some people stayed milling around at places like gas stations and car lots. There were also armed civilians like Rittenhouse who had shown up under the premise of protecting property.
People were actually just shoving each other, arguing, some were setting fires in dumpsters and garbage cans. There are actually a lot of bystander videos that are proving to be key in the criminal proceedings.
NOWAKOWSKI: So we now are onto the third day of testimony, and we’ll get into a bit of what’s been presented so far, but on Tuesday, the parties laid out their takes of the case. So here’s a clip of what the prosecution, Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger said in opening statement, describing the unrest in Kenosha after the police shooting of Jacob Blake, Jr. and how he thinks that plays into the criminal liability of Rittenhouse:
(SOUNDBITE OF ASSISTANT DISTRICT ATTORNEY THOMAS BINGER)
"There are fireworks going off, which is a loud noise sounds like gunfire, there are five guns being discharged the sound of gunfire throughout our community that night. Hundreds of people are there experiencing this. And yet the only one who kills anyone is the defendant. We will show you video of hostile confrontation between literally hundreds of people on one side of the issue and on the other side of the issue. People getting up in each other's faces. And yet the only person who killed anyone is the defendant."
NOWAKOWSKI: So the prosecutor is emphasizing here that despite the chaos and violence of that night, no one else but Rittenhouse killed anyone.
SILVER: Yes, exactly. Assistant District Attorney Binger repeated that phrase multiple times throughout his opening statement.
His statement lasted about a half hour. He stood at the lectern and laid out for the jury what he thought the evidence was going to show. The defense, on the other hand, over objection from the prosecution, showed the jury dozens of screenshots of bystander videos and some small sections of video in its opening statement. Most of them were marked to identify what in the photo or video the defense wanted to identify.
NOWAKOWSKI: Let’s hear a short clip from the defense’s opening statement talking about the self-defense claim:
(SOUNDBITE OF ATTORNEY MARK RICHARDS)
"Mr. Binger makes a big thing out of Kyle Rittenhouse was the only person who shot somebody that evening. True. Mr. Rittenhouse was the only person who was chased by Joseph Rosenbaum."
NOWAKOWSKI: What more can you share with us about this in particular, Maayan?
SILVER: Yes, so here, defense attorney Mark Richards is directly refuting the claims by the prosecutor that Rittenhouse is somehow inherently criminally responsible and not privileged by self-defense because he’s the only one out of the rowdy and sometimes violent crowd that killed people.
Basically what Richards is saying is here is, no, look, we’ve got a unique situation and that turns on Rittenhouse’s interaction with the first man that he shot and killed, Joseph Rosenbaum.
NOWAKOWSKI: What can you tell us about Rittenhouse’s interaction with Rosenbaum?
SILVER: So, as I mentioned, Joseph Rosenbaum was the first man Rittenhouse killed. He was 36-years-old and had just been released from the hospital, and his interaction with Rittenhouse is central to the self-defense claim. That shooting set off the subsequent events that led to other shootings.
Videos show that Mr. Rosenbaum was agitated earlier that night before he encounters Rittenhouse. The prosecution had tried to keep that evidence out because what’s relevant to a self-defense claim is only what Rittenhouse knew at the time, but the judge allowed that evidence in for jurors to see.
So the prosecutor ultimately said in opening statement, Rosenbaum was getting in people's faces at this gas station, using obscenities, essentially daring people to respond. He actually got right up in the face of armed people who had similar AR-15 rifles just like Rittenhouse, and Rosenbaum confronted them right in their face.
NOWAKOWSKI: So where do the prosecution and defense diverge?
SILVER: So Binger, the prosecutor, says none of those people Rosenbaum egged on, respond to Rosenbaum, take the bait. And he says that's really distinguished with Rittenhouse who actually initiated the confrontation with Rosenbaum, that's the prosecution's perspective, and that infrared video will show that Rittenhouse actually ran after Rosenbaum at some point earlier.
Later on, both parties agree that Rosenbaum was chasing after Rittenhouse. The defense says Rosenbaum ambushed Rittenhouse from behind a car at the car lot, and after running after Rittenhouse, they're claiming that he lunged for Rittenhouse’s gun and tried to take it from him, which is why Rittenhouse shot him according to the defense.
NOWAKOWSKI: So that's the Rosenbaum situation, what can you tell us about how these events connected to the additional shootings that night?
SILVER: So the prosecution says that after Rittenhouse shoots Rosenbaum, the crowd thought he was an active shooter and ran after him.
26-year-old Anthony Huber went after Rittenhouse with a skateboard, Rittenhouse shot and killed him moments later. 27-year-old Gaige Grosskreutz went after Rittenhouse with a gun in his hand, and Rittenhouse shot him in the arm, but he survived.
NOWAKOWSKI: So what has the testimony shown on this so far this week?
SILVER: A major piece of the state’s case happened yesterday, Wednesday, as prosecutors questioned Kenosha Detective Martin Howard and showed jurors bystander videos of the string of shootings.
It was the first time that the jury had seen the actual shootings. Another notable moment was a video of Rittenhouse himself being interviewed by a bystander.
(SOUNDBITE OF BYSTANDER INTERVIEW VIDEO)
PERSON TAKING VIDEO: What are you doing out here? Obviously, you’re armed, and you’re in front of this business we saw burning last, so what’s up? RITTENHOUSE: So, people are getting injured, and our job is to protect this business and part of my job is to also help people, if there’s somebody hurt, I’m running into harm’s way. That’s why I have my rifle because I can protect myself obviously.
NOWAKOWSKI: So Maayan, what was the reaction to that evidence?
SILVER: I wasn’t inside the courtroom yesterday, but an Associated Press pool reporter wrote that the jury was riveted during these videos and that Rittenhouse was taking notes during this moment.
NOWAKOWSKI: What else can you tell us about the bystander videos that are being shown?
SILVER: One video showed Rosenbaum running after Rittenhouse and throwing a plastic bag at him. Someone yells “F--- you!” and then four shots ring out. But the shooting itself is not captured clearly on camera. The person taking the video says “Oh, he shot him! He shot him, man.”
There was graphic video showing Rosenbaum lying on the ground with a wound to his head that a bystander put a shirt on to stop the bleeding.
The in-court pool reporter noted that some jurors had a hard time watching that video. In fact, Court TV, which is live streaming the trial, didn’t broadcast portions of those videos because they were too graphic. Rittenhouse himself looked away from the video that showed the aftermath of Rosenbaum being shot.
NOWAKOWSKI: How did the defense cross-examine Howard about these videos?
SILVER: The defense asked Howard about aerial FBI surveillance video from 8,500 feet up in the air that showed the positioning of Rittenhouse and Rosenbaum before the shooting and their paths leading up to it.
The defense established that Rosenbaum was hiding behind a car in the 63rd Street Car Source lot and then there was a confrontation and he started running after Rittenhouse, gaining ground until there was ultimately a shooting.
The defense established that Rittenhouse yelled “Friendly! Friendly! Friendly!” before the shooting, as well. More testimony is going to come from Howard because he'll be back on the stand today, Thursday.
NOWAKOWSKI: Certainly much more to come, but thanks for filling us in in what's developed so far Maayan.
SILVER: Thanks Audrey.