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Kyle Rittenhouse’s Self-Defense Claim Strong Under Wisconsin Laws: Expert

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OPINION: This article contains commentary which reflects the author's opinion


Kyle Rittenhouse, who stands accused of murdering two people during rioting in Kenosha, Wis., last year, while wounding a third man, has a significant chance to successfully defend his claim of self-defense under the state’s laws, according to experts.

Fox News reported Friday that Rittenhouse, seen in viral videos posted online last summer shooting firing his AR-15 rifle at protesters who were attacking him with objects including one who appeared to club the then-17-year-old with a skateboard, is scheduled to go on trial Monday:

When Kyle Rittenhouse goes on trial Monday for shooting three men during street protests in Wisconsin that followed the police shooting of Jacob Blake last summer, he’ll argue that he fired in self-defense. 

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Legal experts say under Wisconsin law he has a strong case. What’s less clear is whether prosecutors will be able to persuade the jury that Rittenhouse created a deadly situation by showing up in Kenosha with an AR-style semiautomatic rifle — and that in doing so he forfeited his claim to self-defense. 

The Antioch, Ill., teen faces six counts including murder charges in the Aug. 25, 2020, deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber. He faces life in prison if convicted of the most serious allegation.

Rittenhouse, 18, of Antioch, Illinois, faces six counts, including homicide charges, in the Aug. 25, 2020, deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and he could face life in prison if convicted of the most serious charge.

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“Rittenhouse, then 17, was among people who responded to calls on social media to travel to Kenosha bearing weapons to protect the city from damaging protests that followed a white police officer shooting Blake, a Black man, in the back on Aug. 23. (A prosecutor later cleared the officer, ruling that Blake was turning toward the officer with a knife.),” Fox News reported.

And as on-scene video shows, it is no secret that Rittenhouse fired shots that killed and wounded the three people involved; but his defense team is arguing that those shots were not fired in anger or premeditation, but simply as a means of self-defense.

Here is the sequence of events, per Fox News:

It shows an unarmed Rosenbaum chasing Rittenhouse into the parking lot of a used car dealership. At one point, Rosenbaum throws a plastic bag at Rittenhouse before the two move off-camera and Rittenhouse fires the fatal shots at around 11:45 p.m. 

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Soon after, Rittenhouse is seen running down a street away from the scene with several protesters on his heels. He falls. Huber appears to strike him in the head and neck area with a skateboard; Rittenhouse shoots Huber, striking him in the heart. 

Seconds later, Gaige Grosskreutz steps toward Rittenhouse holding a pistol. Rittenhouse shoots him, badly injuring Grosskreutz’s arm. Rittenhouse then gets to his feet and leaves the scene. 

Video posted shortly after the shootings appeared to show Rittenhouse attempting to turn himself into police who were obviously hard-pressed to respond to shootings and other situations that had gotten out of hand.

Rittenhouse’s defense team intends to show that he was pursued by rioters and protesters and that as some of them moved in to attack him, he was forced to defend himself.

“The defense also wants to introduce evidence that police handed water to Rittenhouse and other rifle-carrying citizens, and said, ‘We appreciate you guys, we really do,'” Fox News noted further.  “They argue that the friendly greeting contributed to Rittenhouse thinking there was nothing wrong with his presence on the streets that night — and that it undermines any argument that he acted recklessly.”

According to Wisconsin law, deadly force is allowed only if “necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm.” The law also provides two standards for juries to meet.

“First, they have to decide if Rittenhouse really believed he was in peril. Hindsight may show he was wrong. But did he sincerely believe it at the time?” Fox News reported. “Next, they must determine if Rittenhouse’s belief was objectively ‘reasonable.’ To make that call, jurors will be instructed to consider whether any reasonable person in Rittenhouse’s shoes would have also felt they had no choice but to shoot.”

The law in Wisconsin doesn’t require anyone to retreat first before using deadly force.

Also, some legal experts said it doesn’t matter why Rittenhouse went to Kenosha, only whether or not he had a legal right to shoot others to defend himself.

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“If I had a 17-year-old-son, I would not encourage him to engage in this kind of behavior. But poor judgment is not a crime,” said Andrew Branca, a Colorado lawyer who wrote, “The Law of Self Defense: Principles.”

He believes that Rittenhouse has a strong defense and will be acquitted on the merits of that defense. However, he added, there are no guarantees in trials.

“Trials are dangerous and unpredictable … and innocent people get convicted all the time,” he said. “So it’s quite possible that Kyle Rittenhouse could be convicted in this case based on that kind of rhetoric, despite the legal merits of the charges.”

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