KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse opened Monday with the challenging task of seating jurors who hadn’t already made up their minds about the young aspiring police officer who shot two people to death and wounded a third during a night of anti-racism protests in Kenosha last year.
The jury that is ultimately selected in the politically charged case will have to decide whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, as his lawyers claim, or was engaged in vigilantism when he opened fire with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle.
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Rittenhouse, 18, faces life in prison if convicted of the most serious charge against him, first-degree homicide.
Rittenhouse was 17 when he traveled to Kenosha from his home in Illinois, just across the Wisconsin state line, during unrest that broke out in August 2020 after a white Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back. Rittenhouse said he went there to protect property after two previous nights marked by arson, gunfire and the ransacking of businesses.
As jury selection got underway, Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder stressed repeatedly that jurors must decide the case solely on what they hear in the courtroom, and cautioned: “This is not a political trial.”
“It was mentioned by both political campaigns and the presidential campaign last year, in some instances very, very imprudently,” he said.
The judge said Rittenhouse’s constitutional right to a fair trial, not the Second Amendment right to bear arms, will come into play, and “I don’t want it to get sidetracked into other issues.”
By midafternoon, at least 24 prospective jurors had been dismissed, many of them because they had already made up their minds.
Among those dismissed by the judge were a man who said he was at the site of the protests when “all that happened” and a woman who said she knew one of the potential witnesses in the case well and would probably weigh that person’s testimony more than that of others.
Another woman who said she watched a livestream video of what happened was dismissed because she wasn’t sure if she could put aside what she saw. One person was dropped from the case after she said she believes in the Biblical injunction “Thou shall not kill,” even in cases of self-defense. A man who said he had “been commenting consistently on news feeds and Facebook” was also excused.
A man said his son is friends with the person who bought the gun that Rittenhouse later used in the shooting. He was not immediately dismissed by the judge.
Under questioning by prosecutor Thomas Binger, some prospective jurors said they left town during the unrest. Others took precautions by moving vehicles or boarding up businesses. One said she got a gun to protect herself and her family.
One woman said she feared there would be friction in her marriage if she came to a verdict that went against her husband’s opinion. The judge put her questioning aside for the time being without dismissing her.
Another said she was “a gossip” who talks to her sister every day and probably couldn’t keep quiet about the case. Schroeder said he could sequester just one juror if necessary and added: “I don’t think it’s beyond you to obey the rule.” The woman said, “I’ll try” and the judge replied, “You’ll do.”
Binger moved to dismiss a woman who said that she has a biracial granddaughter who participated in some of the protests last summer and that she could not be impartial. Rittenhouse’s attorneys had no objection.
Binger asked if any of the jurors had donated money to support Rittenhouse, or if they knew anyone who did. None said said so. The judge earlier denied an attempt by the prosecution to get a list of donors to Rittenhouse defense funds.
The judge told attorneys he thinks picking the jury from 150 prospective jurors could be accomplished in a day.
Jury selection got off to a slow start. During the unexplained delay,the judge played a mock game of “Jeopardy!” with prospective jurors in the courtroom, something he sometimes does as attorneys get organized. This prompted many negative comments on a Facebook livestream of the trial, with many saying it was inappropriate.
Schroeder told the potential jurors he would select 20 of them — 12 jurors and eight alternates — to hear the case, which is expected to last about two weeks. He said he will almost certainly not sequester the jury.
Rittenhouse has been painted by supporters on the right as a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness among demonstrators and exercised his Second Amendment gun rights. Others see him as a vigilante and police wannabe who never should have been armed in Kenosha in the first place.
Rittenhouse is white, as were those he shot, but many are watching his trial as the latest referendum on race and the American legal system, in part because the protesters were on the streets to decry police violence against Black people.
Kenosha County, with about 170,000 people, is 87% white, 7% Black and 13% Hispanic, according to Census data. The county leans Republican, with Donald Trump carrying it in both 2016 and 2020 and a Republican congressman representing the district.
Rittenhouse fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, after Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse across a parking lot and threw a plastic bag at him shortly before midnight on Aug. 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 toward 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.
___ Bauer reported from Madison, Wisconsin, Forliti from Minneapolis. Associated Press writer Tammy Webber contributed from Fenton, Michigan.
Find AP’s full coverage on the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse at: https://apnews.com/hub/kyle-rittenhouse