KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — Kyle Rittenhouse took the stand at his murder trial Wednesday and testified he was under attack when he shot three men during a night of turbulent protests in Kenosha. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I defended myself,” he said.
Making the high-risk decision to testify at his murder trial, the 18-year-old Rittenhouse told the jury that one of the men cornered him and made a grab for his rifle, another hit him with a skateboard, and the third came at him with a gun of his own.
Rittenhouse sobbed so hard at one point that the judge declared a break. But otherwise, he was composed on the stand, even as he was being cross-examined so aggressively that the judge berated the chief prosecutor with the jury out of the room.
Rittenhouse is on trial on charges of killing two men and wounding a third during unrest that erupted in the summer of 2020 over the wounding of a Black man by a white Kenosha police officer. He could get life in prison if convicted of the most serious charges against him.
Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, went to Kenosha with an AK-style semi-automatic weapon and a medic bag in what the former police youth cadet said was an attempt to protect property after rioters had set fires and ransacked businesses on previous nights.
Rittenhouse testified he fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum after Rosenbaum chased him and put his hand on the barrel of Rittenhouse’s rifle. He said he then shot and killed Anthony Huber after Huber struck him in the neck with his skateboard and grabbed his gun.
When a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz, “lunges at me with his pistol pointed directly at my head,” Rittenhouse shot him, too, wounding him.
“I didn’t intend to kill them. I intended to stop the people who were attacking me,” Rittenhouse said.
The case against Rittenhouse has divided Americans over whether he was a patriot taking a stand against lawlessness or a vigilante. Prosecutors have portrayed him as the instigator that night, while the defense has said he feared for his life, afraid that his gun was going to be taken away and used against him.
Rittenhouse’s decision to testify carried certain risk — including the possibility of fierce cross-examination from prosecutors — and came despite doubts among some legal experts about the value of him taking the stand, given the apparent weaknesses in the state’s case.
During the prosecution’s side of the case, some of its own witnesses bolstered the young man’s claim of self-defense.
As he began crying on the stand and appeared unable to speak, his mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, on a bench across the courtroom, sobbed loudly. Someone next to her put an arm around her. After the judge called a recess, jurors walked by Rittenhouse and looked on as he continued to cry.
During Rittenhouse’s testimony, Judge Bruce Schroeder lashed out at prosecutor Thomas Binger for questioning Rittenhouse about whether it was appropriate to use deadly force to protect property. The judge loudly and angrily accused Binger of improperly trying to introduce testimony that he had earlier said he was inclined to prohibit.
Rittenhouse attorney Mark Richards suggested Binger might be attempting to provoke a mistrial with his line of questioning.
Much of the testimony Wednesday was centered on the first shooting of the night, since it was Rosenbaum’s death that set in motion that bloodshed that followed.
Rittenhouse said he was walking toward a car dealer’s lot with a fire extinguisher to put out a blaze when he heard somebody scream, “Burn in hell!” He said he responded by saying, “Friendly, friendly, friendly!”
He said Rosenbaum was running at him from one side and another protester with a gun was in front of him, “and I was cornered.” He said that was when he began to run. He said another protester, Joshua Ziminski, told Rosenbaum, “Get him and kill him.”
Rittenhouse said he heard a gunshot directly behind him, and as he turned around, Rosenbaum was coming at him with his arms out in front. “I remember his hand on the barrel of my gun,” Rittenhouse said.
“I shoot him,” the defendant recounted. He also said he thought the object Rosenbaum threw during the chase — a plastic hospital bag — was the chain he had seen Rosenbaum carrying earlier.
Rittenhouse said he intended to help the wounded man but was in shock as someone else attended to him. Rittenhouse said he thought the “safest option” was to turn himself in to police who were nearby.
Asked by his lawyer why he didn’t keep running away from Rosenbaum, Rittenhouse said: “There was no space for me to continue to run to.”
Rittenhouse said that earlier that night, Rosenbaum was holding a chain and had twice threatened to kill him. Apologizing to the court for his language, Rittenhouse quoted Rosenbaum as saying: “I’m going to cut your (expletive) hearts out!”
As he first took the stand, Rittenhouse was asked by his attorney whether he came to Kenosha looking for trouble, and he responded no.
He testified that he saw videos of violence in downtown Kenosha on the day before the shootings, including a brick being thrown at a police officer’s head and cars burning in a Car Source dealership lot. Rittenhouse said the Car Source owner “was happy we were there.”