KENOSHA, Wis. — Kyle Rittenhouse, who fatally shot two men and wounded another amid protests and rioting over police conduct in Kenosha, Wis., was found not guilty of homicide and other charges on Friday, in a deeply divisive case that ignited a national debate over vigilantism, gun rights and the definition of self-defense.
After about 26 hours of deliberation, a jury appeared to accept Mr. Rittenhouse’s explanation that he had acted reasonably to defend himself in an unruly and turbulent scene in August 2020, days after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black resident, during a summer of unrest following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer.
Mr. Rittenhouse sobbed and was held by his lawyers after a clerk read the jury’s verdict, acquitting him of all charges.
After the shootings, Mr. Rittenhouse was transformed from an unknown 17-year-old from rural Illinois into a national symbol. Some Americans were horrified by the images of a teenager toting a powerful semiautomatic rifle on a city street during racial justice demonstrations, a reminder of the extent of open carry laws in the United States. Others saw a well-meaning young man who had gone to keep the peace and provide medical aid, a response to the sometimes destructive protests that had roiled American cities in the summer of 2020.
“So many people look at this case and they see what they want to see,” Thomas Binger, the prosecutor in the trial, had cautioned jurors before they began deliberations.
The case reflected the sharp split in the country, and political leaders and others weighed in almost immediately, conservatives deeming it a win for the notion of self-defense and liberals labeling it a failure of the criminal justice system.
Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, said the verdict served as a message to “armed vigilantes” that “you can break the law, carry around weapons built for a military, shoot and kill people, and get away with it.”
President Biden said the acquittal would “leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included,” but he also urged demonstrators to remain peaceful. “I stand by what the jury has concluded,” he told reporters earlier. “The jury system works, and we have to abide by it.”
Republicans, like Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, said that “justice has been served.” Rebecca Kleefisch, the leading Republican candidate for Wisconsin governor, said that “the justice system worked” and called the prosecution “a complete disgrace.”
Shortly after noon on Friday, the jury forewoman, wearing a jean jacket and a face mask, handed the verdicts to a court official, who passed them to Judge Bruce Schroeder for review. As the verdict was read, Mr. Rittenhouse’s mother and sisters cried, and friends and family of the men Mr. Rittenhouse fatally shot clutched each other’s hands and wept. Several jurors, appearing fatigued, shifted uncomfortably in their seats or folded their arms across their chests.
Outside the courthouse, quiet gave way to shouts from supporters of Mr. Rittenhouse. Gov. Tony Evers had prepared for any unrest after the verdict by authorizing 500 Wisconsin Army National Guard troops. As evening fell, only a few demonstrators holding signs remained on the courthouse steps.
Mark Richards, a defense lawyer, said in an interview that Mr. Rittenhouse, who is now 18, had left the courthouse immediately after the verdict.
“He’s relieved, and he looks forward to getting on with his life,” Mr. Richards said.
On Aug. 25, 2020, Mr. Rittenhouse arrived in downtown Kenosha with his rifle and a medical kit on the third day of civil unrest over the shooting of Mr. Blake by Officer Rusten Sheskey in the former factory town of 100,000 residents. (In January, prosecutors announced they were not charging Officer Sheskey with wrongdoing.) Demonstrators marched peacefully at points, but some smashed streetlamps and set cars and shops on fire. Law enforcement was overwhelmed, and dozens of civilians took up their own firearms to guard businesses and subdivisions, adding to a tense and chaotic atmosphere that included sparring between the groups.
Testimony and video footage shown during the two-week trial revealed that Mr. Rittenhouse was chased into a parking lot, at one point, by Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, who was unarmed and behaving erratically. Mr. Rittenhouse turned and shot him at close range, killing Mr. Rosenbaum, who had been living in Kenosha.
Mr. Rittenhouse then shot two other people — Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz — who pursued Mr. Rittenhouse as he fled, testimony showed. Mr. Grosskreutz, a medic from the Milwaukee suburbs, survived and testified at the trial, saying he had pulled out a gun because he believed that Mr. Rittenhouse was an active shooter. Mr. Huber, who was 26 and had been protesting the shooting of Mr. Blake — a longtime friend — died after a gunshot to the chest.
Over the course of the trial, prosecutors sought to portray Mr. Rittenhouse, a former resident of Antioch, Ill., as an instigator who had behaved with criminal recklessness, inserting himself into a volatile scene of demonstrators and then firing his gun with little provocation.
There was chaos that night in Kenosha, Mr. Binger, the prosecutor, told the jury in his opening statement. But “the only one who killed anyone,” he said, “was the defendant, Kyle Rittenhouse.”
At the heart of the case, though, was a fight over what acts qualify as self-defense. Wisconsin law allows deadly force to be used if a person “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself,” and in the state there is no duty to retreat before using force.
The prosecution struggled to refute Mr. Rittenhouse’s central argument: that he had feared for his life when he was chased by Mr. Rosenbaum, a man who had been captured on video throughout the evening shouting threats and racial epithets and — according to Mr. Rittenhouse and a witness called by the prosecution — had promised to kill Mr. Rittenhouse if he found him alone. Mr. Rosenbaum had been released that day from a hospital where he had received psychiatric care and was treated for bipolar disorder and depression, testimony showed.
It was Mr. Rosenbaum, Mr. Richards said in his opening statement, who “lit the fuse” that night, “trying to take Kyle’s weapon from him to use against him.”
Still, in testimony, some people who had observed Mr. Rosenbaum, who was 5-foot-4, downplayed the danger that they perceived from him that night. Jason Lackowski, a former Marine and resident of Green Bay who said he had traveled to Kenosha with a gun to protect property, testified that he saw Mr. Rosenbaum as “a babbling idiot.”
Perhaps the closest witness to the encounter was Richie McGinniss, a videographer for The Daily Caller, a prosecution witness whose testimony was helpful in establishing a crucial detail for the defense: He said Mr. Rosenbaum had reached for the barrel of Mr. Rittenhouse’s rifle just before Mr. Rittenhouse fired.
“It was clear to me it was a situation where it was likely something dangerous was going to happen, be it Mr. Rosenbaum grabbing it or Mr. Rittenhouse shooting it,” Mr. McGinniss said on the stand.
Mr. McGinniss also became emotional in the courtroom as he described the trauma of the shootings and his fear when he realized he might have been struck by a bullet. After hearing the gunshots only feet away, Mr. McGinniss said, he stamped his legs on the ground to make sure he had not been wounded.
Mr. Rittenhouse had faced five felonies, including first-degree intentional homicide, which is known as murder in most states, first-degree reckless homicide and attempted first-degree intentional homicide.
A sixth charge, for illegal possession of the rifle, was dismissed by Judge Schroeder after defense lawyers argued that Mr. Rittenhouse did not violate the state statute in question because of his age and the length of the weapon’s barrel. The gun was purchased by Dominick Black, a friend of Mr. Rittenhouse’s, because Mr. Rittenhouse was 17 and not legally old enough to buy it, testimony showed.
The trial, which took place in the courthouse in Kenosha that was shuttered and heavily barricaded during last year’s unrest, was marked by angry clashes over judicial procedure between the judge and lawyers, particularly the prosecutor, Mr. Binger.
Last week, the defense moved for a mistrial, suggesting that Mr. Binger — who had introduced questions on a topic that the judge had previously suggested was off-limits — was intentionally sabotaging the trial to avoid an acquittal.
Judge Schroeder, the longest-serving circuit court judge in Wisconsin, insisted that he wanted to keep politics out of his courtroom, scolding a prospective juror who declared that his belief in the Second Amendment made him biased in favor of Mr. Rittenhouse. But the judge also drew attention on Veterans Day for the unusual step of prompting the jury to applaud a defense witness — a veteran — and for periodically launching into meandering asides for the jury on legal theory, Roman history and the Bible.
Jurors heard from dozens of witnesses, including women close to the men who had been shot dead; other armed people who had joined Mr. Rittenhouse on the Kenosha streets that night; and witnesses who had livestreamed the shootings. In the most closely watched day of the trial, Mr. Rittenhouse testified in his own defense.
His testimony began on an emotional note: He burst into tears as he recalled the night of the shootings, prompting the judge to call a recess. But for most of Mr. Rittenhouse’s time on the witness stand, he delivered a calm account, saying he had brought a gun to downtown Kenosha for protection, did not plan to fire it and only did so when he feared for his life.
While on the stand Mr. Grosskreutz, who survived Mr. Rittenhouse’s gunshots, described the chaotic scene after he heard the first several shots ring out. Mr. Grosskreutz testified that he ran in the direction of the gunfire, determined to help anyone who had been injured. Within moments, he encountered Mr. Rittenhouse, fleeing down the street with his rifle, and began to follow in his direction with a pistol in one hand.
When Mr. Huber gave chase and swung a skateboard at the head of Mr. Rittenhouse, who had fallen down, Mr. Rittenhouse shot Mr. Huber in the chest. Mr. Grosskreutz continued to approach, he said in his testimony, first with his gun pointed in the air, then in the direction of Mr. Rittenhouse.
“I was never trying to kill the defendant,” he said. “In that moment, I was trying to preserve my own life.”
After the verdict was announced, Mr. Rittenhouse, his family and his lawyers left immediately, but the crowd on the courthouse steps lingered for hours. In a video clip that the Fox News host Tucker Carlson posted on Twitter later on Friday, Mr. Rittenhouse spoke about his experience.
“The jury reached the correct verdict: Self-defense is not illegal,” Mr. Rittenhouse said, adding, “It’s been a rough journey, but we made it through.”
Justin Blake, the uncle of Jacob Blake, strongly criticized local authorities, accusing them of racism. But he said he would keep seeking justice.
“We’re going to continue to fight,” he said, “and we’re going to continue to be peaceful. Let freedom ring.”
Lawyers for the estate of Mr. Rosenbaum and Mr. Grosskreutz released a statement calling for peace after the verdict. “What we need right now is justice, not more violence,” they said. “While today’s verdict may mean justice delayed, it will not mean justice denied.”
Mr. Huber’s parents, John Huber and Karen Bloom, said that they were “heartbroken” and that the verdict “sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street.”
In a statement on Friday, Mayor John Antaramian of Kenosha urged residents to be civil and respectful in the wake of the decision.
“The jury in the Rittenhouse case has announced its verdict, and I join Kenosha’s community leaders in calling for calm,” he said. “We all may not agree because we all look at the world differently, but we must engage in civil and respectful dialogue.”
Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, Dan Hinkel and Sergio Olmos contributed reporting from Kenosha. Jennifer Medina and Maggie Astor also contributed reporting.