On Friday, after more than three days of deliberation, a jury found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty in the homicides of two people and wounding of a third who he shot with an AR-15 during a night of protests against police brutality last year in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Earlier in the trial, Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder had dismissed a misdemeanor charge for possessing a dangerous weapon under the age of 18, because of a loophole in Wisconsin law. Rittenhouse had still faced five felony counts, including murder and attempted murder, for killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and for injuring Gaige Grosskreutz. He’d pleaded not guilty in January to all charges.
During the trial, prosecutors and defense lawyers argued over whether Rittenhouse had acted in self-defense when he shot the three people in a chaotic confrontation during a night of protests in Kenosha. Rittenhouse had claimed that he, at 17, had driven to Kenosha with an AR-15 to supposedly defend businesses from protestors on the third night of unrest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man who survived but was paralyzed from the waist down. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said on the stand. “I defended myself.” The prosecution argued that Rittenhouse was a “chaos tourist” who had acted recklessly when shooting Rosenbaum four times and Huber once, killing them both, and shooting and injuring Grosskreutz.
One of the most talked-about elements of the trial, after Rittenhouse sobbing during his own testimony, was the behavior of Judge Schroeder, who, according to Deja Vishny, a criminal defense lawyer who worked for the Wisconsin State Public Defender for nearly 40 years, seemed to repeatedly side with the defense. “I think he used his position to favor Rittenhouse,” she says. “It’s kind of unusual because for most defense lawyers, most of the time when you’re in court, the judge favors the prosecutor.” Vishny spoke to Rolling Stone about Schroeder’s possible impact on the case and what could come next for Rittenhouse.
What do you think of Kyle Rittenhouse being acquitted on all the charges he faced?
The verdict, to me, was not unexpected. I don’t think the parties had an opportunity to do an adequate jury selection process, and there was only one Black juror on the jury panel. I think that it’s always important to have really diverse juries in all cases. There’s a double standard of justice in this country, and I’m not saying this to take anything away from anybody. Obviously the jury felt that the prosecution had not proven their case [beyond a] reasonable doubt, and they spent a lot of time talking about it and reviewing evidence, which is what a conscientious jury should do, so the jury has spoken. But I believe that if a Black man did what Kyle Rittenhouse had done, he would be convicted.
Judge Schroeder caught some attention for ruling in pretrial proceedings that prosecutors could not refer to the three people who Rittenhouse shot, two of whom died, as “victims,” but that the defense could call them “arsonists,” “looters” or “rioters” if lawyers could show they participated in those activities. The public has also responded to him getting the courtroom to applaud a defense witness who was a veteran on Veterans’ Day. How could these behaviors have affected the trial?
Judges have a lot of power in a case. This judge definitely seemed like he was favoring the defense in a lot of his rulings. It’s a homicide case [and] most judges would say, look, for victims of a homicide, whether it’s a crime or not, they’re dead. So they’re victims and they rule on that differently [than Schroeder did], even in a self-defense case. The applause for the defense witness occurred when the judge told everyone in the court to applaud for any veterans who were present and asked anyone who was a vet to stand up. The only person who stood up was the expert witness for the defense. If the pretrial hearing was thorough then this judge should have known that man was a veteran in advance. It’s very odd. That’s really kind of out of order, strange, and it shouldn’t have happened. You’re going to have the jurors applauding for a defense expert?
Judge Schroeder had Rittenhouse draw numbers at random out of a tumbler to decide which jury alternates would be dismissed before deliberations began. Schroeder claimed that he’s been allowing defendants in criminal cases to do this for at least 20 years. In your experience, is this an unusual practice?
I read about that and I was shocked. I’ve never seen that happen. I’ve tried dozens of cases in Wisconsin and never seen a judge let the defendant draw alternates out of the jar. The clerk always does it. I don’t know if the jurors perceived that judge was favorable to the defendant. Generally speaking, jurors that come into the courtroom respect the judge. The judge is perceived as being powerful, neutral, not on either side.
Is there anything unique about a case like this being tried in the state of Wisconsin?
In general, the Black community in Kenosha is treated poorly in the court system. Just like a lot of places, there’s over-incarceration of Black people; there’s harsh sentences for Black defendants; there’s a lot of bias against Black people. They have no Black judges there. The jail is disproportionately minorities, particularly Black people. But here you have Kyle Rittenhouse, who is on the side of these vigilantes and white supremacists. And the judge is bending over backwards to give him a fair trial where day in and day out in the courts in Kenosha County, the average Black defendant is not necessarily getting a fair trial. So from my perspective, that’s very disturbing to give special leeway to this young man.
I consider Kenosha a very racist place, even though Rittenhouse is white and the people he killed were white. After Jacob Blake was [shot], Black Lives Matter protesters were tear-gassed and given curfew tickets and all these white vigilantes — the police didn’t do anything to them. They thanked them; they gave Kyle Rittenhouse water.
Does this set any precedent for trials regarding violence at protests going forward?
I don’t think a trial of one given individual has a social significance beyond that trial. I don’t really see it that way. Each case is different. I don’t think his being acquitted is going to preclude other people from prosecuting white supremacist vigilantes who go around armed. I guess it will depend on the politics of a particular District Attorney’s office.
Do I think white supremacists are emboldened right now in their attacks on Black people and in openly showing their racism? Do I think it’s gonna have an impact on those people? I think they’re not too worried about it, but I don’t think it’ll have an impact on the next trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Now that Rittenhouse has been acquitted of all charges, what types of civil action do you think he might face? What happens next?
There are already civil suits that have been filed [against the city and county] by Gaige Grosskreutz, and by the estate of Anthony Huber [against the Kenosha Police Department and the Kenosha County Sheriff’s Department]. There could be civil actions to sue Rittenhouse for what he’s done, but it’s important that those actions aren’t just against Rittenhouse himself but against the police for [allegedly] colluding with Rittenhouse and the vigilantes, for allowing the situation to develop to the point where this could potentially happen. This is a good example of why a 17-year-old shouldn’t be running around with an assault weapon.
Rittenhouse had no money, but he may get a lot of money after this because there is a vast network of right-wing people who supported him and paid for his defense paid for his bail. You know, he may try to profit off of this by writing a book, by doing paid appearances, by trying to sell his story. So just because he doesn’t have assets now doesn’t mean he’ll never have them. And any time you get a judgment against somebody, if that person comes into money, you can sue them for that. And what’s important to know about a civil lawsuit is the burden of proof for the plaintiff is lower than in a criminal case. The civil burden of proof is “the greater weight of the credible evidence” or what’s called a preponderance of the evidence. So it’s different and so many times people have been acquitted but have been sued civilly and the plaintiffs have been successful. The O.J. Simpson case [where Simpson was acquitted on murder charged but found liable in for two wrongful deaths in civil proceedings] would be a good example of that.
There may be federal charges. I’m not a federal prosecutor or federal defense lawyer, but there are probably some kind of federal charges. For example, you had what we call a straw buyer buy the firearm. He wanted a gun. He was too young to buy, so somebody else did it. That’s a federal crime. There could be other federal charges and the Department of Justice, I’m sure, will take a look at that.