Kyle Rittenhouse held his own on the witness stand Wednesday as he fought to keep himself out of prison for shooting three people during a protest in Wisconsin, for the most part conveying a calm demeanor and eliciting two major missteps from prosecutors, legal experts said.
Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz during the protest in Kenosha in August 2020. He faces multiple counts, including intentional homicide, which carries a mandatory life sentence.
Rittenhouse, 18, has argued he fired in self-defense after the men attacked him. To win an acquittal on self-defense, he must show he reasonably feared for his life and used an appropriate amount of force. His testimony was the best way to give jurors insight into what he was thinking, legal observers say, but it exposed him to prosecutors' cross-examination.
Rittenhouse testified that Rosenbaum twice threatened to kill him, chased him and grabbed for his gun. He also testified Huber hit him with a skateboard twice and tried to take his gun and Grosskreutz pointed a pistol at him. Rittenhouse said repeatedly that he felt he had to shoot the men to protect himself.
Rittenhouse cried as he described how Rosenbaum chased him. But he mostly kept his composure as he spent hours fielding questions from his attorneys and prosecutors.
“From what I saw, he solidified his defense and showed himself to be very human,” said Phil Turner, a Chicago-based defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. “His crying appeared very genuine. I think the jury got more of a sense of him as a young person. It's always a difficult decision to put someone on the stand . . . but from what I could see of the cross-examination, it was way off-target.”
Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger began by asserting that Rittenhouse intended to kill all three men, which Rittenhouse repeatedly denied, saying he did only what he had to do to stop the person attacking him. Binger also asked Rittenhouse if he played shoot-'em-up video games.
He asked Rittenhouse why he was talking about the shootings now for the first time, drawing the ire of Judge Bruce Schroeder. Prosecutors typically don't question why a defendant has remained silent because defendants legally aren't required to say anything.
“This is a grave constitutional violation for you to talk about the defendant’s silence,” the judge told the prosecutor. “You’re right on the borderline. And you may be over. But it better stop.”
Binger also tried to ask Rittenhouse about a video that shows him telling his friend 15 days before the protests that he would like to shoot suspected shoplifters. Schroeder ruled in a pretrial hearing earlier this year that wouldn't be allowed, although he said he might revisit the decision. But Binger went ahead with his questions Wednesday without getting permission from the judge.
Both moves led to Rittenhouse's attorneys filing a motion seeking a mistrial with prejudice. Such a declaration would end the trial and block prosecutors from ever charging Rittenhouse again with anything in connection with the shootings. Schroeder said he would take the motion “under advisement.” It was unclear when he might rule.
“Without a doubt, (Rittenhouse) helped himself (by testifying),” former Waukesha County District Attorney Paul Bucher said. “He is very well prepared. He's not argumentative, he's not evasive. He has been emotional, as expected. The prosecution is walking on eggshells for a mistrial."
Laurie Levenson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, said she thought Rittenhouse came off as “quite coached.”
“This is a big credibility call for the jury,” she said. “The jury can either see (Rittenhouse) as a clueless kid or he's trying to evade answering questions. It can hurt him if the jury doesn't think he's sincere."
The protests began in August 2020 after a white Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, during a domestic disturbance. The shooting sparked several nights of chaotic demonstrations that saw multiple businesses set on fire. Gov. Tony Evers was forced to call out the National Guard to support local police.