KENOSHA, Wis. – The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse opened Monday with the challenging task of seating jurors who hadn’t already made up their minds about the young aspiring police officer who shot two people to death and wounded a third during a night of anti-racism protests in Kenosha last year.
The jury that is ultimately selected in the politically charged case will have to decide whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, as his lawyers claim, or was engaged in vigilantism when he opened fire with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.
By early evening, at least 29 of the 150 or so prospective jurors summoned had been dismissed, about a dozen of them because they had strong opinions about the case or doubts they could be fair. Some also expressed fear about serving on the jury because of public anger but were not immediately let go.
Rittenhouse was 17 when he traveled to Kenosha from his home in Illinois, just across the Wisconsin state line, during unrest that broke out in August 2020 after a white Kenosha police officer shot and wounded 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 the most serious charge against him, first-degree homicide.
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.”
“It was mentioned by both political campaigns and the presidential campaign last year, in some instances very, very imprudently,” he said.
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.”
Among those dismissed by the judge were a man who said he was at the site of the protests when “all that happened” and a woman who said she knew one of the potential witnesses in the case well and would probably give more weight to that person’s testimony.
Another woman who said she watched a livestream video of what happened was dismissed because she 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. A man who said he had “been commenting consistently on news feeds and Facebook” was also excused.
A man said his son is friends with the person who bought the gun that Rittenhouse later used in the shooting. He was not immediately dismissed by the judge.
Under questioning by prosecutor Thomas Binger, some prospective jurors said they left town during the unrest. Others took precautions by moving vehicles or boarding up businesses. One said she got a gun to protect herself and her family.
“After all of that — neighbors yelling that I shouldn’t have my flag hanging, my United States of America flag should not be up for whatever reason — I left it up and I got a gun,” the woman said.
The prosecutor 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.
Binger asked if any of the jurors had donated money to support Rittenhouse, or if they knew anyone who did. None said so.
Rittenhouse has been painted by supporters on the right 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 who never should have been armed in Kenosha in the first place.
Rittenhouse is white, as were those he shot, but many are watching his trial as the latest referendum on race and the American legal system, in part because the protesters were on the streets to decry police violence against Black people.
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.
Two prospective jurors said they would be nervous about serving, though the judge assured them precautions would be taken to keep them safe.
“My fear is walking out of any of the days of court and just wondering what we’re walking out to,” said one. “What are our cars going to look like when we’re going out to them? Are they going to be slashed? Are they going to be damaged? Am I going to be able to get home safe?”
The other said she did not want to serve on the Rittenhouse jury because “either way this goes you’re going to have half the country upset with you and they react poorly.” She said: ”I don’t want people to come after in their haze of craze.”
The start of jury selection was briefly delayed in the morning for unexplained reasons. During the delay, the judge played a mock game of “Jeopardy!” with prospective jurors in the courtroom, something he sometimes does as attorneys get organized.
Schroeder told the potential jurors he would select 20 of them — 12 jurors and eight alternates — to hear the case, which is expected to last about two weeks. He said he will almost certainly not sequester the jury.
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.
Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin, Forliti from Minneapolis. Associated Press writer Tammy Webber contributed from Fenton, Michigan.