A jury has acquitted teenager Kyle Rittenhouse of murder in the fatal shooting of two men during racial justice protests in a decision that ignited fierce debate about gun rights and self-defence in the United States.
The jury on Friday found Rittenhouse, 18, not guilty on all charges: two counts of homicide, one count of attempted homicide for wounding a third man, and two counts of recklessly endangering safety in protests marred by arson, rioting and looting on August 25, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Rittenhouse broke down sobbing after the verdict and collapsed to the floor before being helped back into his chair.
Amid a heavy law enforcement presence, several dozen protesters lined the steps outside the courthouse after the verdict was read, some carrying placards in support of Rittenhouse and others expressing disappointment.
“We are all so very happy that Kyle can live his life as a free and innocent man, but in this whole situation there are no winners, there are two people who lost their lives and that’s not lost on us at all,” David Hancock, a spokesperson for the Rittenhouse family, told Reuters.
Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and fired a bullet that tore a chunk off the arm of Gaige Grosskreutz, 28. Rittenhouse claimed self-defence.
President Joe Biden, who during last year’s election campaign tweeted a video that appeared to link Rittenhouse to white supremacists, said on Friday he supported the jury’s decision and urged people to express their views on the verdict peacefully.
But elsewhere reaction showed deep partisan divisions. It was greeted with outrage by many on the political left and celebrated by gun rights supporters.
“It is unconscionable our justice system would allow an armed vigilante … to go free,” the Congressional Black Caucus said in a statement.
The thorny issue of race also hung over the case, although Rittenhouse and the men he shot were all white. Some black activists said on Friday the US police and courts would have treated the teenager more harshly if he had been black.
But conservatives saw the verdict as a validation of the US Constitution’s Second Amendment, which grants Americans the right to bear arms.
US congressman Madison Cawthorn, a Republican representative from North Carolina, said on Instagram: “Kyle Rittenhouse is not guilty my friends. You have a right to defend yourselves. Be armed, be dangerous and be moral.”
In reaching their verdicts after more than three days of deliberations, the jury contended with duelling narratives from the defence and prosecution that offered vastly different portrayals of the teenager’s actions on the night of the shootings.
The defence argued Rittenhouse had been repeatedly attacked and had shot the men in fear for his life. They said he was a civic-minded teenager who had been in Kenosha to protect private property after several nights of unrest in the city south of Milwaukee.
The unrest followed the police shooting of a black man named Jacob Blake, who was left paralysed from the waist down.
The prosecution portrayed Rittenhouse as a reckless vigilante who provoked the violent encounters and showed no remorse for the men he shot with his AR-15-style rifle. They also noted he was the only one to kill anyone that night.
Rittenhouse, who in tearful testimony said he had no choice but to open fire to protect himself, is viewed as heroic by some conservatives who favour expansive gun rights and consider the shootings justified. Many on the left view Rittenhouse as a vigilante and an embodiment of an out-of-control American gun culture.
Protests against racism and police brutality turned violent in many US cities after the police killing of black man George Floyd in Minneapolis three months before the Kenosha shootings.
With so much of that night in Kenosha caught on mobile phone and surveillance video, few basic facts were in dispute. The trial instead focused on whether Rittenhouse acted reasonably to prevent “imminent death or great bodily harm”, the requirement for using deadly force under Wisconsin law.
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