‘I Defended Myself,’ Kyle Rittenhouse Tells Jurors in His Homicide Trial

KENOSHA, Wis. — Kyle Rittenhouse sobbed and gulped for air on the witness stand as he was asked to describe the moments before he shot three men in the aftermath of demonstrations in Kenosha, Wis. One of them had aggressively chased him into a parking lot, Mr. Rittenhouse testified. The man had lunged at him, he said.

“I remember his hand on the barrel of my gun,” he testified at one point, after the judge called a recess to allow Mr. Rittenhouse — whose mother was also weeping audibly from her row in the courtroom gallery — to compose himself enough to speak.

For much of Wednesday, though, Mr. Rittenhouse, 18, appeared composed, confident and sometimes quizzical through hours of questioning from lawyers in his trial on six criminal counts, including intentional and reckless homicide, reckless endangerment and illegal possession of a firearm.

It was perhaps the most closely watched day of a divisive case: Mr. Rittenhouse, who has been largely silent for months, gave his first detailed, public version of what happened in downtown Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020, as prosecutors raised pointed questions about his credibility and why he had inserted himself into that night’s scene at all.

The testimony came amid clashes and shouting in the courtroom. The judge and the prosecutor, Thomas Binger, sparred bitterly over judicial procedure. And Mr. Rittenhouse’s defense team called for a mistrial with no possibility of a retrial, suggesting that Mr. Binger might be purposefully sabotaging his own case to avoid an acquittal.

Judge Bruce Schroeder of Kenosha County Circuit Court admonished Mr. Binger over what the judge perceived to be violations of his orders about what information could be heard by the jury, and when Mr. Binger insisted that he had acted in good faith, Judge Schroeder responded angrily, “I don’t believe you.”

The trial comes more than 14 months after Kenosha erupted in protests, rioting and arson after the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white police officer, Rusten Sheskey. On the third night of the unrest, Mr. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time and lived in Antioch, Ill., joined other armed civilians to come downtown amid the protests, saying they wanted to help protect property.

Judge Bruce Schroeder reprimanded Thomas Binger, a prosecutor, several times for his line of questioning.Credit…Pool photo by Sean Krajacic

Throughout the first week of the trial, Mr. Rittenhouse has sat next to his lawyers, yawning, fidgeting and watching the jury and witnesses intently. The prosecution has frequently displayed graphic images of the men Mr. Rittenhouse shot and killed: an autopsy photo of Anthony Huber, a gunshot wound visible on his chest, and close-up video clips of Joseph Rosenbaum immediately after being shot, struggling to breathe on the pavement. In those moments, Mr. Rittenhouse has turned away from the television screen next to the jury box, staring downward at his lap.

The testimony has taken place in an ornate courtroom at the courthouse in downtown Kenosha that was also the stage for demonstrations last year. Many jurors held clipboards and notebooks, scribbling notes throughout Mr. Rittenhouse’s testimony; Wendy Rittenhouse, his mother, sat in the gallery with her auburn hair pulled back, leaning forward intently to watch her son speak and occasionally breaking in tears along with him.

The streets outside the courthouse have been largely quiet through the trial, though several protesters stood on the steps on Wednesday, including Justin Blake, an uncle of Jacob Blake.

There was no debate from Mr. Rittenhouse over the basic facts of the case: He shot and killed two men, Mr. Rosenbaum and Mr. Huber, and wounded a third, Gaige Grosskreutz, with a military-style semiautomatic rifle that a friend, Dominick Black, had bought on his behalf earlier that year.

On Wednesday morning, Mark Richards, a lawyer for Mr. Rittenhouse, called him to the stand, prompting Judge Schroeder to order the jury out of the courtroom and advise Mr. Rittenhouse of his right not to testify in his own defense. Taking the stand can be risky for any defendant, but Mr. Rittenhouse’s legal team had indicated since opening statements that he would speak.

On the stand, Mr. Rittenhouse said he drove to Kenosha after seeing the destruction, arson and graffiti that had marked the city for two days after the shooting of Mr. Blake prompted widespread protests. He had some ties to the community: a new job in Kenosha County as a lifeguard and friends and family who lived in Kenosha.

Mr. Rittenhouse listened to one of his lawyers, Mark Richards, before his testimony.Credit…Pool photo by Sean Krajacic

Wearing a navy suit and tie, Mr. Rittenhouse said he had cleaned graffiti from the wall of a local high school and joined Mr. Black to defend a business, Car Source, after a plea from its owners for help.

He described wandering through Kenosha with his rifle as protesters set fires and the night grew increasingly tense. He testified that he assisted people with minor medical problems, including a woman, he said, whose ankle he wrapped. He said he also helped put out a fire behind a church.

And he spoke of his first encounters with Mr. Rosenbaum, 36, one of the men he would later kill.

“Mr. Rosenbaum was walking with a steel chain, and he had a blue mask around his face, and he was just mad about something,” Mr. Rittenhouse said, adding that Mr. Rosenbaum screamed that he would kill Mr. Rittenhouse if he found him alone.

Despite the tense situation, Mr. Rittenhouse said he continued to walk through the area asking demonstrators — many of whom had been tear-gassed or suffered scrapes and minor injuries that evening — if they needed medical help.

“I hear somebody scream, ‘Burn in hell,’ and I reply with, ‘Friendly, friendly, friendly,’ to let them know, hey, I’m just here to help,” he said. “I don’t want any problems. I just want to put out the fires if there are any.”

When, close to midnight, Mr. Rittenhouse was chased by Mr. Rosenbaum and later by other people in the crowd who believed he was an active shooter, he shot at them to stop what he described as a grave threat.

“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Mr. Rittenhouse said, explaining why he had fired his gun eight times. “I defended myself.”

In a cross-examination that lasted several hours, the prosecution peppered Mr. Rittenhouse with questions about why he had come to downtown Kenosha in the first place — carrying a weapon and inserting himself into a highly volatile situation with a group that was unlikely to appreciate his presence.

Mr. Binger, the prosecutor, suggested that Mr. Rittenhouse was the person who had created danger. He questioned Mr. Rittenhouse about his decision to carry a gun that, as a minor at the time, he was too young to legally purchase in Wisconsin. He asked why Mr. Rittenhouse had chosen to protect a used-car business that he had little connection to. And he pressed him on his decision to enter a volatile crowd of demonstrators after curfew in Kenosha, a city that was not his own.

Mr. Rittenhouse named people in a photograph taken on the night of the shootings.Credit…Pool photo by Mark Hertzberg

Mr. Binger questioned Mr. Rittenhouse’s credibility, pointing out that he had misrepresented his medical credentials while patrolling the streets in Kenosha.

In a video clip played in the courtroom, Mr. Rittenhouse was seen telling Richie McGinniss, a videographer for The Daily Caller, a conservative website, that he was an emergency medical technician.

“You lied to him, correct?” Mr. Binger said.

“I told him I was an E.M.T., but I wasn’t,” Mr. Rittenhouse said.

Later, Mr. Binger narrowed in on whether Mr. Rittenhouse’s self-defense argument was reasonable and asked what risk Mr. Rosenbaum, who had no weapon, posed when Mr. Rittenhouse shot and killed him.

“If I would have let Mr. Rosenbaum take my firearm from me, he would have used it and killed me with it and probably killed more people,” Mr. Rittenhouse said.

Mr. Rittenhouse struggled to give clear answers to questions about why he carried his gun with him as he ran toward a car lot with a fire extinguisher, an event that immediately preceded his shooting of Mr. Rosenbaum. Prosecutors repeatedly questioned Mr. Rittenhouse’s decision to carry the weapon at all, when his stated purpose for being at the scene was to give medical care and protect property.

“I brought the gun for my protection,” Mr. Rittenhouse said, adding he did not think he would feel the need to use it.

Dan Hinkel, Mitch Smith and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs contributed reporting.

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