KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — The judge at Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial on Monday dismissed a count of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18, a misdemeanor that had appeared to be among the likeliest of the charges to net a conviction for prosecutors.
The judge then launched into 36 pages of legal instructions to the jury, explaining the charges and the laws of self-defense. After that, the two sides were expected to deliver closing arguments, the final word before the jury was to begin deliberations.
Rittenhouse, 18, killed two men and wounded a third in the summer of 2020 during a turbulent protest against racial injustice, in a case that has underscored bitter division in the U.S. over guns, protests and law and order. Supporters have hailed him as a hero who took a stand against lawlessness; foes have branded him a vigilante.
He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted of the most serious charge against him, first-degree intentional homicide.
The underage weapon charge was punishable by up to nine months in jail.
There is no dispute that Rittenhouse was 17 when he carried an AR-style semi-automatic rifle on the streets of Kenosha and used it.
But the defense argued that Wisconsin law had an exception that could be read to clear Rittenhouse. After prosecutors conceded on Monday that Rittenhouse’s rifle was not short-barreled, Judge Bruce Schroeder dismissed the charge.
Public interest in closing arguments was evident Monday morning, when more people than usual stood in a line outside Courtroom 209 to get a seat. The first one in line was a man in a red hat and red coat bedecked with silver glitter. Outside, someone erected a cutout of Rittenhouse, and a man stood on a corner waving an upside-down American flag.
Rittenhouse’s mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, listened intently in court during the jury instructions.
Rittenhouse traveled the few miles from his home to Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020, as the city was in the throes of destructive protests that erupted after a white police officer shot and wounded Jacob Blake, a Black man. Rittenhouse said he went there to protect property.
Bystander video captured the critical minutes when Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 28.
Rittenhouse is white, as are the three men he shot. The case has polarized Americans, raising questions about racial justice, vigilantism, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and white privilege.
Rittenhouse testified that he feared for his life and acted in self-defense. Prosecutors have contended he was the aggressor that night and created a dangerous situation in the first place by showing up with a rifle.
But some of the prosecution’s own witnesses — and a wealth of video — largely supported his claims of self-defense.
Perhaps in recognition of that, prosecutors asked the judge to let the jury consider several lesser charges if they acquit him on the original counts. Schroeder agreed to do so Monday.
In his instructions to the jury, the judge said that to decide that Rittenhouse acted lawfully in self-defense, the jury must find that he believed there was an actual or imminent unlawful threat to him and that the amount of force he used was reasonable and necessary.
Among the prosecution witnesses was videographer Richie McGinniss, who testified that Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse and lunged for his rifle right before he was shot. Ryan Balch, a military veteran in Rittenhouse’s group that night, testified that Rosenbaum had threatened to kill Rittenhouse and others if he got them alone.
Grosskreutz, for his part, acknowledged on the stand that he approached Rittenhouse with a gun of his own pointed at the young man. As for Huber, he hit Rittenhouse with a skateboard before he was gunned down.
Among the trial’s most compelling moments was Rittenhouse’s own testimony. In some six hours on the stand — most of it poised and matter-of-fact — he said he was afraid Rosenbaum would take away his gun and shoot him and others. He said he never wanted to kill anyone.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I defended myself,” Rittenhouse said.
After closing arguments, names were to be drawn to determine which 12 of the 18 jurors who heard testimony will deliberate, with the rest dismissed as alternates.
With a verdict near, Gov. Tony Evers said that 500 National Guard members would be prepared for duty in Kenosha if local law enforcement requested them.