By Jessie Seigel / Washington, D.C.
The Rittenhouse jury delivers its verdict
The not guilty verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse murder case is outrageous on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin.
First, in what universe can an underage 17-year-old carry an assault weapon he has no legal right to own into a volatile situation, falsely claim he is an emergency medical technician, play at being an unofficial adjunct to the police (better described as a vigilante), and create a dangerous circumstance which results in him killing two people and maiming a third—but then claim self-defense and walk away from his bloody actions without even a slap on the wrist?
The shameful answer? This universe. This country.
In the Rittenhouse case, a baby-faced crybaby was able to claim he was afraid for his life—in a situation he created—and be acquitted of several charges of murder, attempted murder, and reckless endangerment on the grounds of self-defense.
Never mind that Rittenhouse was the one with the AR-15 assault rifle. Never mind that those who chased him were unarmed and courageously trying to stop a man they had every reason to believe was a mass shooter. These were facts that should have made the jury recognize Rittenhouse’s victims—not Rittenhouse—as the ones acting in self-defense and defense of others. But his victims, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber are dead. They don’t get to go on the witness stand, to cry, and to make their case. Only the surviving victim, Gaige Grosskreutz, was able to testify. Maybe he should have cried on the stand like Kyle Rittenhouse did.
In this Wild West version of law and order, the person with the gun gets to kill those trying to apprehend him and claim he was only defending himself. Based on that topsy-turvy logic, I ought to be able to rob a bank, kill the guard who pulls his gun to stop me, and successfully claim I shot him in self-defense.
President Biden's reaction to the Rittenhouse verdict
After the not guilty verdict on Friday, President Biden said he stands by what the jury has concluded. He stated, “the jury system works, and we have to abide by it.” Later in the day, the White House issued a statement in which Biden urged Americans to express their views peacefully, noting that the verdict “will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included,” but “we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken.”
Biden added, “I ran on a promise to bring Americans together, because I believe that what unites us is far greater than what divides us. I know that we’re not going to heal our country’s wounds overnight, but I remain steadfast in my commitment to do everything in my power to ensure that every American is treated equally, with fairness and dignity, under the law. … Violence and destruction of property have no place in our democracy.”
I do not expect the president of the United States to advocate that we refuse to abide by a jury verdict. But the nation needed a more proactive reaction than empty and Pollyanna-ish words about healing, accompanied by a statement treating violence against life and destruction of property as coequal concerns for democracy. His phrasing appeared far more concerned with sidelining protests over the Rittenhouse verdict than addressing the violence with which such protests might be met.
And while I do not think we would be better off with cases decided by judges rather than juries, it was clueless, under these circumstances, for the president to pronounce that the jury system “works.” Often—especially lately, and especially in this case—it has not worked as it should.
While we must accept this jury’s verdict, we do not need to respect it. The president would have better served the nation with a terse statement like that of Vice President Kamala Harris, who said simply: “The verdict really speaks for itself. As many of you know, I’ve spent a majority of my career working to make the criminal justice system more equitable and clearly there’s a lot more work to do.”
There are many layers to the Rittenhouse case, including its societal fallout and its effect on the constitutional right to peacefully assemble without violent vigilante intimidation. The interplay of these various layers is complex. To fully understand the extent of this miscarriage of justice and the dangers for our society, it is necessary to peel back the layers and lay bare all the facts.
The Basic Events
In May 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse gave Dominick Black, a friend who was dating one of Rittenhouse’s sisters, money with which to buy him the AR-15 assault rifle because Rittenhouse, age 17, was too young to legally buy it for himself. They agreed to store the rifle at the house of Black’s stepfather in Wisconsin until Rittenhouse turned 18, when his ownership and possession of the weapon would be legal.
The testimony of Dominick Black, who bought Rittenhouse's gun for him
On August 23, in Kenosha, Wisc, a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, seven times, leaving him partly paralyzed. Nationwide protests followed, and locally, on the first nights, there was some property destruction.
On August 24, 2020, Rittenhouse drove himself the approximately 20 miles from his home in Antioch, Ill. to Kenosha, Wisc. (Despite early reports, his mother was at work as an assistant nurse and did not drive Rittenhouse to Kenosha. Nor did he transport the AR-15 rifle across state lines in the car.) In his testimony, Rittenhouse claimed that he went to Kenosha to provide first aid after seeing online pleas for people to come to the city to help protect it.
Rittenhouse’s friend Dominick Black testified that he invited Rittenhouse to join him at the Kenosha protest to protect a car dealership, and they went together to Black’s stepfather’s home to get Rittenhouse’s gun. (Black has separately been charged with two counts of intentionally giving a dangerous weapon to a minor, causing death. His trial was delayed until after the Rittenhouse trial was completed.)
While his friend Black apparently stayed at the car dealership they were supposedly protecting, photos reveal that Rittenhouse wandered off, striding down a road, flaunting his weapon—not slung across his back by its sling, but held poised in front of him, ready for action. Chillingly, in one photo, he is some paces behind a policeman, chest out, as if following in the officer’s footsteps and gaining from the moment a sense of self-importance.
Video footage presented during the trial showed that Rittenhouse was chased into a parking lot by Joseph Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum, who had been released that day from a hospital where he had received psychiatric care for bipolar disorder and depression, was unarmed but behaving erratically. According to Rittenhouse as well as a witness called by the prosecution, Rosenbaum threatened to kill Rittenhouse if he found him alone.
As Rittenhouse ran into the parking lot, a man nearby fired a handgun into the air, and Rittenhouse turned in the direction of the gunfire just as Rosenbaum lunged at him. Rittenhouse then fired four shots, killing Rosenbaum. One witness, Richie McGuiness, a videographer for The Daily Caller, a right-wing publication cofounded by Tucker Carlson, said Rosenbaum had reached for the barrel of Rittenhouse’s rifle just before Rittenhouse fired. However, Rittenhouse did not stop after Rosenbaum ceased to be a danger but continuing to fire as Rosenbaum was falling to the ground.
After Rittenhouse shot Rosenbaum, he fled, pursued by a crowd that correctly thought he was the shooter.
One of his pursuers, Anthony Huber, swung his skateboard at Rittenhouse, and Rittenhouse shot him in the chest. Gaige Grosskreutz who, unlike Rittenhouse, really is a medic, testified that after he heard several shots, he ran toward the gunfire, intending to help whoever had been injured. He soon encountered Rittenhouse, holding his rifle, and followed him, holding his own pistol. After Huber was shot, Grosskreutz continued his approach, first with his gun pointed in the air, and then toward Rittenhouse—who shot him.
While protesters were trying to point Rittenhouse out to the police, the police ignored them, , and hurried past Rittenhouse towards the scene of the shooting. Rittenhouse called his friend Dominick Black to tell him he had shot someone. Black then drove Rittenhouse back to Antioch, Ill. His mother then drove him to surrender himself at the local Antioch police station.
Ultimately, I do not know whether Rittenhouse should be spending the rest of his life in prison. But allowing him to walk away from his actions with no consequences fails justice at both the individual and societal level.
Rittenhouse was charged with first-degree reckless homicide, use of a dangerous weapon for the death of Joseph Rosenbaum, and first-degree intentional homicide, use of a dangerous weapon for the death of Anthony Huber. The jury was also given the option of second-degree intentional homicide and first-degree reckless homicide in Huber’s death.
In addition, Rittenhouse was charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide for the shooting of Gaige Grosskreutz, and two counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, use of a dangerous weapon for the danger to people who were in his line of fire, but who, lucky for them, were not hit.
Despite all, after more than 25 hours of deliberation over the course of four days, the jury's inexplicable, unsupportable verdict: not guilty on all counts.
Arguing that Rittenhouse had acted in self-defense, his lawyer maintained that Rosenbaum “lit the fuse” by “trying to take Kyle’s weapon from him to use against him.”
But, as Harvard law professor Noah Feldman wrote in Tulsa World, it was only “the presence of Rittenhouse’s own weapon” that gave him “the opportunity to claim he was in fear of bodily harm.” It was Rittenhouse who instigated the situation by parading as if he were part of law enforcement and brandishing a gun he had no right to possess. Even if one granted that in the moment when he shot Rosenbaum, he believed he needed to defend himself—it was Rittenhouse who had created that need.
On the other hand, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz had every reason to believe Rittenhouse was an active shooter and that use of his assault rifle for mass murder was in the offing. Unarmed, Huber attempted to stop him with a mere skateboard, and died a hero’s death—for all the comfort that might give his grieving family, which is not likely to be much. And Grosskreutz, who survived with a maimed arm, testified that he pulled out his handgun because he believed Rittenhouse was an active shooter. “I was never trying to kill the defendant,” he said. “In that moment, I was trying to preserve my own life.”
The judge, Bruce Schroeder, of the Kenosha County Circuit Court, demonstrated bias in numerous ways.
Claiming that “victims” is a loaded term, Judge Schroeder ruled that prosecutors could not refer to those shot by Rittenhouse as "victims." Yet he agreed to allow the terms “looters” and “rioters” to be used to refer to Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz, if the defense could establish evidence that they were engaged in those activities that night. The judge was, in essence, allowing the victims to be put on trial by the defense without being legally charged or afforded an opportunity to defend themselves. Even worse, the judges’s ruling suggested that if they had been looters or rioters, that fact could have justified Rittenhouse’s actions.
Judge Schroeder treated portions of jury selection like a game show. According to The Daily Beast, the judge had the defense team put 18 slips of paper with the ID numbers of the possible jurors or alternates into a raffle hopper and let defendant Rittenhouse draw out six slips of jurors who would become alternates, the rest becoming his 12 jurors. Letting the Rittenhouse defense team and defendant do this is likely to have made the jurors feel as though the judge was on the defendant’s side.
Schroeder later tried to defend this action by claiming that he used to let a clerk choose the juror names, but in one case when the only juror eliminated by this method was “a Black, the Black, the only Black” he decided to let defendants pick because “people feel better when they have control.”
Of the 12 jurors in Rittenhouse’s jury, seven were women, five were men, and all but one of the 12 were white. (According to NBC, the sole juror of color was a man in his late 20s who told the court that he had friends with views on both sides of the matter and that a police officer from a nearby Wisconsin city was once a roommate.)
In addition, on Veteran’s Day, in front of the jury, Schroeder requested “a round of applause” for a force expert witness for the defense who was a veteran. This might well have biased the jurors in favor of that witness.
And the night before the verdict was returned, Schroeder let one juror bring his legal instructions home. Both the prosecution and the defense were concerned that this could encourage the juror to do his or her own research. Schroeder’s reason for letting the juror bring the 36-page document home? --That the jury instructions were “very confusing.” But this is unacceptable since it was Judge Schroeder who delivered them. It was his responsibility to make them clear.
Initially, it was rumored that Rittenhouse was connected with right-wing militias and that he specifically went to Kenosha to hunt protesters. His social-media accounts showed him handling long guns, cheering for Trump in the front row at a campaign rally, and participating in a Police Explorers program for teenagers. In addition, he strongly supported Blue Lives Matter. However, the Anti-Defamation League examined these social media posts and said that they found no evidence of extremism. Furthermore, if the trial testimony can be believed—and that is an if—Rittenhouse did not go to Kenosha with the specific intent of being a Rambo for right-wing extremism.
Nevertheless, the right-wing adopted Rittenhouse as a poster boy for their cause from the start and raised money for his defense. Not surprisingly, they were jubilant over his not guilty verdict, and are now courting him. Rep. Paul Gosar, recently censured by the House for posting a video that depicted him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has invited Rittenhouse to attend college at Arizona State University. Reps. Matt Gaetz and Madison Cawthorn are each offering him internships in their offices. Their purpose, of course, is to use Rittenhouse’s success in getting off after killing those protesting police murder, to further their own goals.
An extensive article in the June 26 issue of The New Yorker presented the Rittenhouse family as having almost no financial means which, faced with the need for a $2 million cash bail, made them easy prey for exploitation by the right-wing machine. John Pierce, a lawyer who has had several high-profile clients like Rudy Giuliani and Tulsi Gabbard, contacted the Rittenhouse family, offering his services. A Trump supporter, he had launched a charitable nonprofit, the #FightBack Foundation, whose ostensible mission was to raise money to fund lawsuits to “take our country back.”
Pierce agreed to represent Rittenhouse based on a retainer of $100,00 and an hourly billing rate of $1,075 . The New Yorker characterized that as “more than twice the average partner billing rate at top U.S. firms.” Pierce was to be paid through #FightBack, which solicited donations through its website. Pierce’s representation largely was delivered in the form of public relations associating Rittenhouse with the militia movement, even taking Rittenhouse and his mother to Florida to dine with Enrico Tarrio, chairman of the Proud Boys, shortly after the January 6 attack on the Capitol.
Pierce is not a criminal-defense lawyer and since Wisconsin requires local representation in homicide cases, Rittenhouse hired two local criminal lawyers. However, they quit once they determined that the Rittenhouse donations were not being handled appropriately.
Eventually, #FightBack hired established defense lawyer Mark Richardson to represent Rittenhouse. That defense team refused to let Pierce join them based on the fact he had substantial debts, and that #Fightback’s finances were “unregulated and opaque” with “ample opportunity for self-dealing and fraud.”
It’s not clear whether Rittenhouse is an undeveloped kid who allowed himself to be used by the far right-wing in order to pay for his defense—or whether he is a willing tool of right-wing militias and hate groups. Either way, his not guilty verdict for the killing of two people and maiming of a third is certain to embolden militias and paramilitary organizations to deliberately instigate violence while claiming self-defense against the true defensive response they engender.
Brittany Packnett Cunningham, an activist who organized protests in Ferguson, Mo, following the police shooting of Michael Brown, has tweeted, “The whole sequence of events” in the Rittenhouse case “was literally a vigilante and legal instruction manual for how to protect and defend white supremacy.”
New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie wrote that police lack of action against armed militias is troubling. She has stated that tacit support from Kenosha police, like thanking Rittenhouse’s group for being there, “almost certainly contributed to the permissive environment that led to the shooting.”
But the family of Anthony Huber issued the most articulate statement of the problem with which the nation is faced: “Today’s verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son. It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.”
Gaige Grosskreut is suing Kenosha in civil court on the grounds that their law enforcement allowed militia groups to roam the city the night Rittenhouse committed his shootings. His attorney, Kimberley Motley issued the statement: "That night in Kenosha, Gaige Grosskreutz, Anthony Huber, and many others acted heroically…While today's verdict may mean justice delayed, it will not mean justice denied. We are committed to uncovering the truth of that night and holding those responsible to account." Anthony Huber’s parents may also bring a civil suit.
While these suits may bring some small modicum of justice to the families of the victims, they will likely have no effect on public policy, the police, or right-wing vigilantes.
For Kyle Rittenhouse to pay no serious penalty for the two lives he has taken and the one he has injured is not only an individual miscarriage of justice, but a result that indicts our entire justice system. It sets a precedent that is already making right-wing fascists think they can use violence with impunity against Black people and their allies who work to retrieve and enhance civil rights, and against those attempting to protect and preserve democracy.
Political columnist Jessie Seigel had a long career as a government attorney in which she honed her analytic skills. She has also twice received an Artist’s Fellowship from the Washington, D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities for her fiction, and has been a finalist for a number of literary awards. In addition, Seigel is an associate editor at the Potomac Review, a reviewer for The Washington Independent Review of Books, and a dabbler in political cartoons at Daily Kos. Of this balance in her work between the analytic and the imaginative, Seigel jokes, “I guess my right and left brains are well-balanced.” More on and from Seigel can be found at The Adventurous Writer, https://www.jessieseigel.com.