Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen accused of murdering two people and trying to kill a third during unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last year, took the stand in his homicide trial on Wednesday. And before he was even done with sob-infused testimony, prosecutors were on the defensive, with the judge ripping them as a conviction seemed to fall further out of reach than ever.
Upon taking the stand, 18-year-old Rittenhouse wasted no time in making a slew of wild allegations about 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum, the first person he shot and killed that night.
“The person that attacked me first threatened to kill me twice,” Rittenhouse claimed to jurors. He went on to claim that he saw the man he killed tip over a trailer and that Rosenbaum appeared to be setting a port-a-potty on fire.
The testimony is crucial for a case that has emerged as a flashpoint in the ever-sharper debate over gun rights, extremism, and racial inequality in America. But it was almost overshadowed by prosecutors being repeatedly admonished by the judge for alleged missteps.
When prosecutors began their cross-examination of Rittenhouse, they were quickly stopped by Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder. Specifically, he suggested their initial line of questioning ran up against the defendant’s right to remain silent and be present for court proceedings.
Prosecutors at one point also appeared to be poised to question Rittenhouse about comments the teen had allegedly made prior to Aug. 25, 2020—the date of the killings—about wanting to shoot people. Schroeder was not pleased.
“Don’t get brazen with me! You know very well that an attorney can’t go into these types of areas when the judge has already ruled, without asking outside the presence of the jury to do so. So don’t give me that!” he yelled at Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger during a brief sidebar without the jury present.
Rittenhouse is facing several charges, including first-degree reckless homicide, after killing two and injuring a third last August. Prosecutors have alleged that the then-17-year-old was a “teenage vigilante” who traveled from Illinois with an AR-15 to meet other armed people who styled themselves guardians of local business. Instead, they say, he was seeking to insert himself into the chaos, and intentionally took lives.
Meanwhile, he has become a favorite on the far-right, buoyed by online fundraising and accused of making at least one appearance with members of an extremist group.
While on the stand, Rittenhouse claimed that the first time Rosenbaum threatened him, he was armed with a chain while yelling: “If I catch any of you fuckers alone, I’m going to kill you.”
Rittenhouse told jurors the second threat occurred outside of a car dealership, where Rosenbaum allegedly screamed, “I’m going to cut your fucking hearts out,’ and I’m not going to repeat the second word but ‘kill you n-words.’”
During protests that night, which defied a citywide curfew, Rittenhouse was caught on camera clashing with activists near a car dealership, where he fatally shot Rosenbaum. The incident spurred others at the scene to pursue the teenager and grab his gun in a scuffle that ended with Rittenhouse fatally shooting 26-year-old Anthony Huber and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, now 27.
If convicted, Rittenhouse could face at least 60 years in prison for reckless homicide.
To argue self-defense in Wisconsin, Rittenhouse’s attorneys are trying to show that the then-17-year-old had no choice but to use deadly force “to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.” Jurors will need to put the case through a two-rule test: that Rittenhouse really believed he was in peril and had to use self-defense, and that the teenager’s actions were objectively reasonable for that situation.
At least two legal experts told The Daily Beast they were surprised to see that Rittenhouse testified on his own behalf, leaving him vulnerable to potentially damning cross-examination from the prosecution.
Then again, the tears may have done the young defendant good.
“So far, short but sincere. Came across well,” Paul Bucher, a former district attorney in Waukesha County, Wisconsin, and a one-time state attorney general candidate, told The Daily Beast of the defendant.
“I would have hammered on his thought process more than his actions,” he added.
As Rittenhouse began to explain to jurors on Wednesday how the first shooting began, and how he was allegedly “cornered” in a parking lot by Rosenbaum, he began to sob—leading the judge to call for a break. His mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, was also seen crying from the gallery.
According to a pool reporter in the courtroom, as jurors walked by Rittenhouse to head to the brief break, many looked up at him in apparent sympathy as the teenager continued to cry.
After the pause, a composed Rittenhouse testified that Rosenbaum put a hand on the barrel of his gun—and he ultimately shot him. Afterward, Rittenhouse said, he ran away from a crowd chasing him and toward the police because “I didn’t do anything wrong, I defended myself.”
Dr. Doug Kelley, a forensic pathologist with the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s office, previously testified that Rittenhouse ultimately shot Rosenbaum four times. That included twice in the front, once in the back, and once alongside his head.
Rittenhouse said Wednesday the next thing he remembers is Huber, the second man he killed, who he said was holding his skateboard “like a baseball bat.”
“And he swings [the skateboard] down, and I block it with my arm,” Rittenhouse said, adding that while he was on the ground, Huber grabbed his firearm. The move prompted Rittenhouse to fire one shot, he said, before he claimed Grosskreutz lunged toward him with a pistol pointed at his head.
Rittenhouse said that after he shot Grosskreutz, he was “no longer a threat to me.”
Kelley testified earlier this week that Huber was fatally killed with a single gunshot to his chest that also caused major trauma to his heart and lungs. Grosskreutz, who also testified for the prosecution, told jurors that the gunshot wound he sustained from Rittenhouse “vaporized” his bicep.
“I thought the defendant was an active shooter,” Grosskreutz said, adding that at one point during the altercation he thought “that I was going to die.”
Through hours of cross-examination, Rittenhouse insisted that he did not mean to kill anyone the night of the protests—and only brought a firearm for his own protection. Amid repeated questions about his encounter with Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse said he “didn't want to have to shoot him.”
“If I would have let Mr. Rosenbaum take my firearm, he would have used it and killed me and probably killed more people,” Rittenhouse said before choking up again. “I never wanted to shoot Mr. Rosenbaum. He was chasing me, I was alone.”
For his part, Bucher suggested Schroeder’s outburst at prosecutors appeared to stem from his feeling that they were “trying to backdoor the ruling” that prior alleged misdeeds could not be discussed at trial.
“I see mistrial coming,” Bucher said Wednesday afternoon, adding that prosecutors “are really pissing off the judge.”
Sure enough, the defense moved for a mistrial with prejudice after the lunch break. The motion is currently under advisement by the judge and, if granted, would theoretically mean prosecutors could not re-try the case.
Former federal prosecutor Neama Rahman told The Daily Beast that was still unlikely despite a seemingly disastrous day for prosecutors.
“Even if a mistrial were granted, it would likely be without prejudice for the prosecution to retry the case,” he said.
Still, the very possibility of a mistrial once again spurred new conflict between the prosecution and Schroeder. At one point, Binger insisted he was acting in good faith.
“I don’t believe you,” Schroeder replied.