The American teenager accused of fatally shooting two protesters in Wisconsin will testify in his own defence at trial, his lawyer suggested, as he sought to counter the prosecution’s portrayal of Kyle Rittenhouse as someone who easily resorted to deadly force.
Rittenhouse, then 17, has been charged with killing two protesters and wounding a third man with a total of eight shots from a semi-automatic rifle amid protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, over the police shooting of a black man on August 25, 2020.
In his opening statement on Tuesday, defence lawyer Mark Richards made multiple references to Rittenhouse taking the stand to offer a firsthand account of why he had feared for his life.
Richards stressed that two of the men Rittenhouse shot had reached for his rifle and that a third was armed with a handgun, all while a mob “attacked him in the street like an animal”.
The teenager’s testimony would add a new element of drama to what is poised to be the biggest US court test of a civilian’s right to self-defence since George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, in Florida.
Earlier, Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger painted the teenager as the aggressor, repeating seven times in his opening statement that Rittenhouse was the only person to have killed anyone that night.
Rittenhouse, now 18, is charged with reckless and intentional homicides in the killing of Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and attempted homicide for wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, now 27, with a bullet to the arm. He has pleaded not guilty.
“The evidence will show that the only person who killed anyone was the defendant, Kyle Rittenhouse,” Binger said.
The prosecutor said the evidence would show that the bullet that killed Rosenbaum – who was chasing the teenager and threw a plastic bag containing toiletries at him but was unarmed – was fired into his back. Binger said Rittenhouse fled the scene without providing first aid.
The unrest had been sparked by a white police officer’s shooting and wounding of Jacob Blake, just three months after the police murder of George Floyd, another black man, in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests over racism and police brutality.
Rittenhouse, sitting next to his lawyers, was wearing a dark grey suit and a maroon shirt and tie. The teen appeared to be listening attentively.
Rittenhouse has emerged as a hero to some conservatives who believe in unfettered gun rights and see the shootings as justified during the chaos that had engulfed Kenosha, while many on the political left have labelled him a vigilante killer.
Some legal experts have said the prosecution faces a tough task in convincing a jury that Rittenhouse did not fear for his life, given video evidence showing all three men were advancing toward him before he fired.
Under Wisconsin law, people can only use deadly force if they “reasonably” believe it necessary to prevent someone from killing or causing great bodily harm to them.
A 20-person jury, composed of 11 women and nine men, was selected on Monday after lawyers and Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder vetted candidates for biases. Many of their questions focused on their views on the protests and their experiences with guns.
Rittenhouse’s lawyers will likely try to portray the men he shot as bad actors involved in lawless behaviour, giving him reason to fear for his safety.
Richards pointed to the expected testimony of a reporter named Richard McGinnis, who told police that Rosenbaum tried to grab the barrel of Rittenhouse’s rifle before the teenager shot him.
“Kyle Rittenhouse protected himself, protected his firearm so it couldn’t be taken,” the defence lawyer said.