Why Was Kyle Rittenhouse Found Not Guilty of 2 Fatal Shootings During 2020 Black Lives Matter Protest?

Kyle Rittenhouse, 18, walked free Friday after a jury embraced his claim of self-defense in fatally shooting 2 men, and wounding a third, during a protest over police brutality in Kenosha, Wis.

Kyle Rittenhouse
Kyle Rittenhouse in court in Kenosha, Wisc., Nov. 19, 2021. Photo: Sean Krajacic - Pool/Getty

Legal observers are weighing in on a jury's decision to clear Kyle Rittenhouse of all charges Friday stemming from his fatal shooting of two men, and wounding of a third, with an assault-style rifle during protests in Kenosha, Wis., last year over the police shooting of a Black man.

"I think the prosecution has done very little right, and a lot of wrong," Matthew Barhoma, a criminal appeals and litigation attorney who was not involved in the case, told PEOPLE as the 12-member jury deliberated its verdicts over four days.

Rittenhouse, now 18, killed Anthony Huber, 26, and Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and injured Gaige Grosskreutz, then 26, with an AR-style assault rifle on Aug. 25, 2020, during unrest that followed the police shooting there of Jacob Blake.

In accusing Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time of the killings, prosecutors alleged he answered a citizen militia's call on social media to protect Kenosha businesses from protesters. The moment capped a summer of Black Lives Matter marches and protests across the country, some of them turned violent, that had been sparked by a police officer's murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

The shootings by Rittenhouse quickly inflamed the debate about vigilantism and attracted pro-gun activists and allies to his side, including then-President Donald Trump, who chose not to denounce his actions. Politicians and activists on both the left and the right have invoked the Rittenhouse case in appeals to energize supporters, with Congressional Republicans celebrating the outcome and Democrats lamenting it, reports The Washington Post.

Rittenhouse was found not guilty of first-degree reckless homicide in Rosenbaum's death; not guilty of first-degree intentional homicide in Huber's death; and not guilty of attempted first-degree intentional homicide in the non-fatal shooting of Grosskreutz. The remaining two charges dismissed by jurors were both for first-degree recklessly endangering the safety of another through use of a dangerous weapon, involving two other men who were not shot.

Joseph Rosenbaum, at left, and Anthony Huber
Joseph Rosenbaum, at left, and Anthony Huber. Facebook; GoFundMe

Rittenhouse said on the stand near the end of his two-week trial that he acted in self-defense during his street encounters with the victims. Prior to the shootings, he told a local reporter on the scene that he was a "trained medic" there only to offer first aid and help put out fires, despite the weapon slung over his shoulder.

Civil rights attorney V. James DeSimone, who also was not involved in the case, says the self-defense argument was dubious to him.

"By bringing an AR-15 in such a volatile situation, and at times pointing the weapon at individuals when there was no direct threat, it really was Kyle Rittenhouse who was provoking the violent encounters," he tells PEOPLE. "Once Kyle Rittenhouse provokes those violent encounters, then he loses the claims of self-defense. And that [was] the prosecution's argument."

"Once you have a weapon with that capability, you have an obligation to use it, or not use it, in a responsible manner," he says. "You can't just claim, 'Oh, I didn't know the gun would shoot so fast.' The first shot to Joseph Rosenbaum fractures his pelvis. He goes to the ground. He is helpless. At that point, there is no reason whatsoever for Kyle Rittenhouse to squeeze the trigger and shoot three more bullets into him."

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Still, defense attorney Mark Richards maintained in his closing argument that "Kyle was a 17-year-old kid out there trying to help this community," according to NBC News. In the death of Rosenbaum, whom Richards portrayed as belligerent to Rittenhouse — Rittenhouse testified that Rosenbaum chased and threatened to kill him — Richards said: "He was causing trouble, he was a rioter, and my client had to deal with him that night alone."

Kyle Rittenhouse trial
Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisc., courtroom on Nov. 10, 2021. Sean Krajacic-Pool/Getty

Rittenhouse's composure broke in court when he described the second of two encounters with Rosenbaum moments before he shot him.

"A gunshot is fired from behind me, directly behind me," Rittenhouse said. "And I take a few steps, and that's when I turn around. And as I'm turning around, Mr. Rosenbaum is ... coming at me with his arms out in front of him. I remember his hand on the barrel of my gun."

After a second man, Huber, then struck Rittenhouse in the neck with a skateboard and grabbed the gun, Rittenhouse shot him too, reports the Associated Press. He next shot and wounded Grosskreutz because Grosskreutz allegedly lunged at him "with his pistol pointed directly at my head," Rittenhouse said.

Rittenhouse said that in firing his weapon, he only "intended to stop the people who were attacking" him.

In Barhoma's view, the prosecution's failure to secure guilty verdicts on the homicide charges, in particular, can be partly blamed on the decision to charge Rosenbaum's death as "reckless" and Huber's as "intentional." One undercuts the other, he says.

"It really kind of destroys your case a little bit, in the sense that you misguided the jury," Barhoma tells PEOPLE. "The whole self-defense argument is going to be easy for the jury to accept when these men, Huber and Rosenbaum, appeared to be grabbing for his gun."

He added: "Reasonable minds can differ, but they reasonably could have turned it around and shot him. And that's good enough for self-defense."

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