The judge at Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial has dismissed a count of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18.
The charge is only a misdemeanour, but it had appeared to be among the likeliest to net a conviction for prosecutors. There is no dispute that Rittenhouse was 17 when he carried an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle on the streets of Kenosha in August 2020 and used it to kill two men and wound a third.
But the defence argued that Wisconsin’s statute had an exception that could be read to clear Rittenhouse. That exception involves whether or not a rifle or shotgun is short-barrelled.
After prosecutors conceded in court on Monday that Rittenhouse’s rifle was not short-barrelled, Judge Bruce Schroeder dismissed the charge.
Rittenhouse, 18, of Antioch, Illinois, still faces charges including intentional homicide – punishable by life in prison.
Public interest in closing arguments was evident on Monday morning when more people than usual stood in a line outside Courtroom 209 to get a seat. The first one in line was a man in a red hat and red coat bedecked with silver glitter. Outside, someone erected a cutout of Rittenhouse, and a man stood on a corner waving an upside-down American flag.
Rittenhouse, 17 at the time, travelled the few miles from his home to Kenosha on August 25, 2020, as the city was in the throes of damaging protests that erupted after a white police officer shot and wounded Jacob Blake, a Black man.
Bystander video captured the critical minutes when Rittenhouse, with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle, shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 28.
Rittenhouse is white, as are the three men he shot. The case raised questions about racial justice, vigilantism, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and white privilege that polarised people far beyond Kenosha.
Rittenhouse has argued self-defence in the shootings, leaving prosecutors with the burden of proving that his fear for his safety and his use of deadly force were unreasonable. Some legal experts watching the trial said the prosecution struggled to do so.
Perhaps in recognition of that, prosecutors asked Judge Bruce Schroeder to let the jury consider several lesser charges if they acquit him on the original counts. Schroeder indicated on Friday that he would allow some of what prosecutors sought when he gave the jury instructions on Monday.
Prosecutors, led by Thomas Binger, sought to portray Rittenhouse as the aggressor the night of the shootings. Binger also highlighted Rittenhouse’s youth and inexperience, noting to jurors that of all the people armed in Kenosha that night, only Rittenhouse shot people.
But some of the prosecution’s own witnesses seemed to strengthen Rittenhouse’s self-defence claims.
Videographer Richie McGinniss testified that Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse and lunged for his rifle right before Rittenhouse shot him. Ryan Balch, a military veteran in Rittenhouse’s group that night, testified that Rosenbaum threatened to kill Rittenhouse and others if he got them alone.
Grosskreutz, the only man shot who survived, acknowledged that he had a gun in his hand as he approached Rittenhouse and that it was pointed at him.
Among the trial’s most compelling moments was Rittenhouse’s own testimony. In some six hours on the stand – most of it poised and matter of fact – he said he was afraid Rosenbaum would take away his gun and shoot him and others. He said he never wanted to kill anyone.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I defended myself,” Rittenhouse said.
After closing arguments, names were to be drawn to determine which 12 of the 18 jurors who heard testimony will deliberate, with the rest dismissed as alternates.
With a verdict near, Governor Tony Evers said that 500 National Guard members would be prepared for duty in Kenosha if local law enforcement requested them.