Kyle Rittenhouse instigated the confrontation that led him to shoot three people on the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin during a Black Lives Matter protest last year, a prosecutor told the jury during opening statements of his murder trial.
Rittenhouse, then 17, shot dead two protesters and wounded a third man with a semi-automatic rifle amid demonstrations over the police shooting of a Black man. Rittenhouse killed one of the victims with a shot to the back, a prosecutor said.
His lawyer suggested Rittenhouse acted only in self-defence after he was attacked by violent assailants and suggested that he would take the stand in his own defence.
In his opening statement at the trial on Tuesday, Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger said chaos had engulfed Kenosha, as agitators came like “moths to a flame” to engage in arson, rioting and looting.
The prosecutor stressed that Rittenhouse was the only person to have killed anyone on August 25, 2020, the night he shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, now 27, in the arm.
“The evidence will show that the only person who killed anyone was the defendant, Kyle Rittenhouse,” Binger said.
Defence lawyer Mark Richards, in contrast, said that two of the men Rittenhouse shot had reached for his rifle and that a third was armed with a handgun, all while a mob “attacked him in the street like an animal”.
Under Wisconsin law, people can only use deadly force if they “reasonably” believe it necessary to prevent someone from killing or causing great bodily harm to them.
In his opening statement, Richards made multiple references to Rittenhouse taking the stand to offer a first-hand account of why he had feared for his life.
Rittenhouse’s testimony would add a new element of drama to what is poised to be the biggest US court test of a civilian’s right to self-defence since George Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, in Florida.
The unrest in Kenosha had been sparked by a white police officer’s shooting and wounding of Jacob Blake, just three months after the police murder of George Floyd, another Black man, in Minneapolis sparked protests over racism and police brutality across the US.
The jury, selected in just one day on Monday, must decide whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defence or was engaged in vigilantism when he opened fire with an AR-15-style semi-automatic rifle.
About a dozen prospective jurors were dismissed on Monday after they expressed strong opinions about the case or worried that they could not be fair. Others worried about their personal safety. “No one wants to be sitting in this chair,” one woman said.
Rittenhouse fatally shot Rosenbaum, 36, after Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse across a parking lot and threw a plastic bag at him shortly before midnight on August 25.
Moments later, as Rittenhouse was running down a street, he shot and killed Anthony Huber, 26, a protester from Silver Lake, Wisconsin, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, a protester from West Allis, Wisconsin.
Bystander video captured Rosenbaum chasing Rittenhouse but not the actual shooting. Video showed Huber swinging a skateboard at Rittenhouse before he was shot. Grosskreutz had a gun in his hand as he stepped towards Rittenhouse.
Rittenhouse faces two homicide counts and one of attempted homicide, along with charges of reckless endangering and illegal possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Rittenhouse has been painted by supporters on the political right – including foes of the Black Lives Matter movement – as a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness by demonstrators and exercised his Second Amendment gun rights under the US Constitution.
He is white, as were those he shot, but many activists see an undercurrent of race in the case, in part because the protesters were on the streets to decry police violence against Black people.
The trial continues.