By SCOTT BAUER, MICHAEL TARM and AMY FORLITI
KENOSHA, Wis. (AP) — The judge at Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial Monday dismissed a count of possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18, a misdemeanor that had appeared to be among the likeliest of the charges to net a conviction for prosecutors.
The judge then launched into 36 pages of legal instructions to the jury, explaining the charges and the laws of self-defense. After that, the two sides were expected to deliver closing arguments, the final word before the jury was to begin deliberations.
Rittenhouse, 18, killed two men and wounded a third in the summer of 2020 during a turbulent protest against racial injustice, in a case that has underscored bitter division among Americans. Supporters have hailed him as a hero who took a stand against lawlessness; foes have branded him a vigilante.
He faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison if convicted of the most serious charge against him, first-degree intentional homicide.
The underage weapon charge was punishable by up to nine months in jail.
There is no dispute that Rittenhouse was 17 when he carried an AR-style semi-automatic rifle on the streets of Kenosha and used it.
But the defense argued that Wisconsin law has an exception related to the length of a weapon’s barrel. Prosecutors argued that the defense was misreading the statute. Judge Bruce Schroeder had twice sided with prosecutors earlier in declining to dismiss the charge, but he also said the law was confusingly written.
After prosecutors conceded Monday that Rittenhouse’s rifle was not short-barreled, the judge threw out the charge.
Public interest in closing arguments was evident in the morning, when more people than usual stood in a line outside Courtroom 209 to get a seat.
Rittenhouse’s mother, Wendy Rittenhouse, listened intently in court during the jury instructions.
Rittenhouse traveled the few miles from his home to Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020, as the city was in the throes of destructive protests that erupted after a white police officer shot and wounded Jacob Blake, a Black man. Rittenhouse said he went there to protect property.
Bystander video captured the critical minutes when Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz, 28.
Rittenhouse is white, as are the three men he shot. The case has polarized Americans, raising questions about racial justice, vigilantism, the Second Amendment right to bear arms, and white privilege.
Rittenhouse testified that he feared for his life and acted in self-defense. Prosecutors contended he was the aggressor that night and created a dangerous situation in the first place by showing up with a rifle.
But some of the prosecution’s own witnesses — and a wealth of video — largely supported his claims of self-defense.
Perhaps in recognition of that, prosecutors asked the judge to let the jury consider several lesser charges if they acquit him on the original counts. Schroeder agreed to do so Monday.
In the case of Huber’s slaying, the judge said that if jurors find Rittenhouse is not guilty of first-degree intentional homicide, then they can weigh whether he is guilty of second-degree intentional homicide. If he is not guilty of that count, then they can decide whether he is guilty of first-degree reckless homicide
In his instructions, the judge said that to decide that Rittenhouse acted lawfully in self-defense, the jury must find that he believed there was an unlawful threat to him and that the amount of force he used was reasonable and necessary.
Schroeder told the jurors that if they find that Rittenhouse acted lawfully in self-defense on the top offense, they should not consider the lesser charges. “You’re done, and you can return a not guilty verdict without considering the lesser offenses,” he said.
Among the prosecution witnesses was videographer Richie McGinniss, who testified that Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse and lunged for his rifle right before he was shot. Ryan Balch, a military veteran in Rittenhouse’s group that night, testified that Rosenbaum had threatened to kill Rittenhouse and others if he got them alone.
Grosskreutz, for his part, acknowledged on the stand that he approached Rittenhouse with a gun of his own pointed at the young man. As for Huber, he hit Rittenhouse with a skateboard before he was gunned down.
Among the trial’s most compelling moments was Rittenhouse’s own testimony. In some six hours on the stand — most of it poised and matter-of-fact — he said he was afraid Rosenbaum would take away his gun and kill him and others. He said he never wanted to kill anyone.
“I didn’t do anything wrong. I defended myself,” Rittenhouse said.
After closing arguments, names were to be drawn to determine which 12 of the 18 jurors who heard testimony would deliberate, with the rest dismissed as alternates.
With a verdict near, Gov. Tony Evers said that 500 National Guard members would be prepared for duty in Kenosha if local law enforcement requested them.
This story has been updated to correct Gaige Grosskreutz’s age to 28.
Bauer reported from Madison and Forliti reported from Minneapolis.
Find AP’s full coverage of the Rittenhouse trial: https://apnews.com/hub/kyle-rittenhouse
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