Kyle Rittenhouse initiated confrontation with 1st man he fatally shot at Kenosha protest, prosecutor argues

Jurors heard starkly different portrayals of Kyle Rittenhouse — instigator or victim — in opening statements Tuesday at his trial in Wisconsin on charges of shooting three men on the streets of Kenosha during a turbulent protest against racial injustice.

Rittenhouse, 17 at the time, shot and killed 2 men, wounded 3rd, during Wisconsin unrest

Kyle Rittenhouse is shown Monday during a break at Kenosha County Courthouse in Kenosha, Wis. Rittenhouse killed two people and wounded a third during a night of anti-racism protests that turned violent in Kenosha last year. (Sean Krajacic/The Kenosha News/The Associated Press)

Jurors heard starkly different portrayals of Kyle Rittenhouse — instigator or victim? — in opening statements Tuesday at his trial in Wisconsin on charges of shooting three men on the streets of Kenosha during a turbulent protest against racial injustice.

A prosecutor said Rittenhouse set the bloodshed in motion when he triggered a confrontation that night and killed a man with a bullet to the back.

But Rittenhouse's attorney argued his client was kicked and hit with a skateboard that night and acted in self-defence, telling the jury they will "end up looking at it from the standpoint of a then-17-year-old under the circumstances as they existed."

Rittenhouse, 18, is charged with reckless and intentional homicides in the killing of two men and the wounding of a third with an AR-15-style rifle on the night of Aug. 25, 2020 in Kenosha, Wisc. Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty to seven charges overall in what has emerged as the most high-profile civilian self-defence case in the U.S. in nearly a decade

The unrest had been sparked by a white police officer's shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, just three months after the police killing of George Floyd, another Black man, in Minneapolis sparked nationwide protests over racism and police brutality.

Rittenhouse has emerged as a hero to some conservatives who believe in unfettered gun rights and see the shootings as justified during the unrest. Many on the political left have labelled him a vigilante killer, as he travelled over the border from his native Illinois to retrieve a weapon he had a friend purchase for him in Wisconsin earlier in the summer, as he was just 17 at the time of the shooting.

WATCH | At least 2 versions of what transpired during Kenosha protests:

Kyle Rittenhouse becomes poster boy for armed self-defence after Kenosha shooting

2 years ago
Duration 2:39
Gun-rights and armed-self-defence advocates have turned Kyle Rittenhouse, charged with intentional homicide in the shooting deaths of two protesters in Kenosha, Wis., into their latest poster boy and are raising money for his defence.

The prosecution, led by Kenosha County assistant district attorney Thomas Binger, described what he said were "two of the roughest nights that our community has ever seen" before the shooting, when Kenosha was rocked by rioting, arson and looting over the police wounding of a Black man.

"We need to keep in mind, there were hundreds of people on the streets that night experiencing the same chaos," Binger told the court. "But only one person killed anyone that night."

The prosecution is expected to argue that Rittenhouse was looking for a chance to use his weapon and was the aggressor in the deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and in the shooting of Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, who survived.

Binger emphasized in his opening remarks that the first of the men Rittenhouse killed, Rosenbaum, was shot in the back. The prosecutor noted that the first two shots hit Rosenbaum in the lower extremities, causing him to fall forward. Then came the shot to the back.

Binger also said that after Rittenhouse initiated the confrontation with Rosenbaum and shot him, he then fled the scene instead of rendering aid, despite portraying himself as a medic earlier in the night.

Assistant district attorney Thomas Binger points at Rittenhouse as he delivers his opening statement on Tuesday. (Mark Hertzberg/Reuters)

The others who were shot afterward "clearly believed" Rittenhouse was an active shooter when they tried to stop him, the prosecutor said.

During his opening statement on Tuesday, Rittenhouse's lawyer, Mark Richards, painted a vastly different picture of the events that night. Richards said the video and photo evidence will show his client was being chased by a "marauding" crowd setting fires and shouting "flat-out threats to murder" before being forced to act in self-defence. 

The evidence will show Rittenhouse "runs away from them because he doesn't want trouble," Richards told the court. "He's trying to get away." 

Richards said it was Rosenbaum, not Rittenhouse, who "lit the fuse that night," and that someone else in the crowd fired the first shot of the evening as Rittenhouse was being chased by Rosenbaum.

Mark Richards, Kyle Rittenhouse's attorney, gives opening statements to the jury on Monday. (Sean Krajacic/The Kenosha News/The Associated Press)

After shooting him, Rittenhouse didn't stop to administer first aid to Rosenbaum because "the mob was at bay," Richards said, while playing video of members of the crowd shouting at his client and attacking him. 

Moments later, as Rittenhouse was running down a street, he shot and killed Huber, a protester from Silver Lake, Wis., who was seen on bystander video swinging a skateboard at Rittenhouse. He also wounded Grosskreutz, a protester from West Allis, Wis., who had a gun in his hand as he stepped toward Rittenhouse.

1st witness testifies

The first witness to testify on Tuesday was Rittenhouse's sister's boyfriend, Dominick Black, who faces charges he bought the rifle for Rittenhouse months before the shootings because the teenager was not old enough to own one at the time.

Black testified that he and Rittenhouse went to downtown Kenosha to help protect a car dealership from property damage, after cars were burned the night before. Black said he thought nobody would start trouble if they saw him with his assault-style rifle. He also said Rittenhouse helped give medical aid and put out fires.

Black said he was on the roof as protesters hurled gasoline bombs and rocks at the business. He said he heard gunshots but didn't know Rittenhouse was involved until the teenager called and said, "I shot somebody, I shot somebody."

Afterward, Black said, Rittenhouse was "freaking out. He was really scared. He was pale, shaking a lot." Black said Rittenhouse told him that he acted in self-defence because "people were trying to hurt him."

Reasonable force to be debated

Legal experts have said the prosecution faces a tough task in convincing a jury that Rittenhouse did not fear for his life, given video evidence showing all three men were advancing toward him, with two appearing to reach for his weapon and one armed with a pistol, when he fired.

Under Wisconsin law, people can only use deadly force if they "reasonably" believe it necessary to prevent someone from killing or causing great bodily harm to them.

Deciding what is reasonable will fall to a 20-person jury selected on Monday after lawyers and the judge vetted candidates for biases, with many questions focused on their views on the protests and their experiences with guns.

LISTEN | What three trials unfolding the U.S. could reveal about racism in the legal system:

Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder criticized the 2020 presidential campaigns of both major parties for their comments on the case. Days after the shootings, President Donald Trump suggested Rittenhouse had acted in self-defence while Joe Biden, Trump's Democratic challenger at the time, accused Trump of stoking violence with his rhetoric.

"This case has become very political," Schroeder said, urging the jurors to be "fair and impartial" for a trial he has projected will last about two weeks.

The trial is poised to be the biggest U.S. court test of a civilian's right to self-defence since George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager.

The 20-member jury will be composed of 11 women and nine men. The group will be cut to 12 for final deliberations.