The Trial of Kyle Rittenhouse Begins with Gruesome Videos and a Plea for Fact-Finding

For more than a year, State of Wisconsin v. Kyle Rittenhouse has been one of the most anticipated homicide trials in the United States, yet last week, when testimony began in the Kenosha County Courthouse, many of the seats in the gallery were empty. No horde of protesters formed outside. The eighteen-year-old defendant, wearing a blue suit and a maroon shirt, sat with his lawyers, looking wan. Rittenhouse appeared not to gaze, much, at the eleven women and nine men entrusted with his fate, but the jury could see his every move. What did it mean when he whispered to his attorney? Jotted notes? Hunched? Yawned?

The media seized on the yawning. Rittenhouse did yawn, rather a lot. On Day One alone, he yawned when the judge said “take the life of another human being,” “motive,” “intentionally use force,” and “ordinary intelligence and prudence.” Observers inferred boredom or callous indifference. There was another possible interpretation: neurological research suggests that yawning can be a stress response to anxiety.

Rittenhouse stands accused of shooting and killing two men, and grievously injuring another, on August 25, 2020, during the third night of racial-justice demonstrations in Kenosha. He fired an AR-15-style rifle that he was too young to have legally purchased; his friend Dominick Black had bought the gun for him months earlier. The armed teen-agers had volunteered to guard an automobile dealership, Car Source, near the courthouse, the heart of the protest zone. Rittenhouse, a lifeguard who hoped to become a law-enforcement officer, purported to be an E.M.T.—in addition to the rifle, he wore a first-aid kit. In June, I wrote, in detail, about the shootings and the opportunists who have seized on the Rittenhouse case. Liberals falsely declared Rittenhouse a white supremacist. Conservatives, calling him a “patriot,” collected vast amounts in donations for his defense, at times without the permission of the Rittenhouse family. ​Observers worry that an acquittal could appear to sanction vigilantism; if the jury convicts Rittenhouse, right-wing commentators may assail the outcome as a leftist infringement on Americans’ right to bear arms.

The judge in the case, Bruce Schroeder, has repeatedly reminded jurors that they must focus on only the facts. To avoid politicization, he barred prosecutors from calling the dead and injured “victims.” Schroeder was appointed to the bench in 1983, was elected the following year, and has been reëlected six times since. The hundreds of thousands of people who are watching the trial via live stream can see him and every other key figure in the courtroom, except the jurors. Schroeder’s approach has a performative aspect. He killed time by engaging prospective jurors in rounds of “Jeopardy!,” and, as the trial began, told the jury, “I always give a little speech first, about—well, they’re often about me.” (The Esquire columnist Charles Pierce wrote, “This is a guy who likes being live-streamed.”)

The makeup of the jury has shifted twice, so far. A male juror was dismissed after telling a sheriff’s deputy a racist joke about Jacob Blake, the Black man whose shooting, by a police officer, prompted the demonstrations in Kenosha. (Apparently, the punch line was “Because they ran out of bullets.”) A female juror was later dismissed for health reasons.

Rittenhouse asserts that he acted in self-defense when he killed Joseph Rosenbaum, an enraged man who chased him into a Car Source parking lot and lunged for his gun, and, moments later, Anthony Huber, a demonstrator who struck him in the neck with a skateboard before reaching for the rifle. Rittenhouse then shot Gaige Grosskreutz, a protester who approached him with a handgun, in the arm. In Wisconsin, the legal standard for acting in self-defense involves the question of who initiated the aggression. The definition of provocation is unclear. The prosecution is building an argument that people died, or found themselves severely injured or in jeopardy, because Rittenhouse deliberately inserted himself into a volatile scene with a gun that he was not trained to use. The defense maintains that Rosenbaum cornered Rittenhouse, Huber attacked, and Grosskreutz might have fired his pistol if Rittenhouse had not shot him first.

Legal experts credited the prosecutor, Thomas Binger, with adequately showing that Rosenbaum was unarmed. One commentator also praised the work of Mark Richards, who, with Corey Chirafisi, is defending Rittenhouse, describing his cross-examination skills as “masterful.” Under Wisconsin law, the defense may need to prove only that Rittenhouse reasonably feared death or great bodily harm when he pulled the trigger.

Rosenbaum’s fiancée, Kariann Swart, testified that on the afternoon of the shootings Rosenbaum came to see her at the motel where she was living. Jurors learned that he had been released from a hospital that morning and was taking medication for bipolar disorder. Jurors were not told that Rosenbaum had been under psychiatric care because he had attempted suicide after being charged with physically abusing Swart. Nor did they learn that he had spent more than a decade in prison for child molestation, the kind of abuse that Rosenbaum himself had endured for much of his youth. A restraining order prevented Rosenbaum from staying with Swart, but she testified that they agreed to work on their relationship. Before he left, she told him that “things had gotten bad” in Kenosha during his hospitalization, and “explicitly” warned him not to go downtown.

It is difficult to think of another high-stakes criminal case with such an abundance of available video evidence. The Black Lives Matter movement yielded a cottage industry of protest streamers. CourtTV, which is both covering and streaming the trial, correctly referred to them not as journalists but rather as “influencers” or “vloggers.” On the night of the shootings, these streamers were seemingly everywhere in Kenosha, filming from multiple angles. They included a former janitor turned YouTuber from the Pacific Northwest who had become well known for videotaping the demonstrations and counter-protests in Seattle. A Los Angeles streamer, who went by Regg Inkagnedo (“Incognito”), was so unfamiliar with Kenosha that he mispronounced the name of the city; yet there he was, aiming his lens at a man squirting what may have been flammable liquid into an S.U.V. “It’s gonna get lit right there,” Regg told his viewers, shortly before the shootings. As he narrated, viewers paid him, in real time, via Cash App and PayPal—three bucks from ImmortanTrump, twenty from drrtbag. Five minutes after Rosenbaum was carried out of the parking lot—and before the police could seal off the area for the collection of evidence—Regg toured the scene, searching for bullet casings and telling his audience, “Look at the blood.”

Evidence presented at the trial confirmed that, on the night of the shootings, the F.B.I. was recording bird’s-eye infrared video in Kenosha. In the courtroom, jurors watched heat-generating figures scramble among the vehicles in the parking lot where, just before midnight, Rosenbaum was shot. Investigators and obsessive journalists had already watched and rewatched every moment of available video to identify key players and contextualize pivotal actions. As Rosenbaum was chasing Rittenhouse, a protester raised a handgun and fired a warning shot into the air; Rittenhouse whirled and fired four shots into Rosenbaum. Martin Howard, a Kenosha police detective and the second witness in the trial, testified that, using a stopwatch, he timed the interval between the bystander’s shot and Rittenhouse’s shots at less than three seconds.

In the courtroom, presenting (and absorbing) the voluminous video evidence required patience. Lawyers on both sides spent a great deal of time saying things such as “Go back ten seconds” to…

Read More:The Trial of Kyle Rittenhouse Begins with Gruesome Videos and a Plea for Fact-Finding

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