KENOSHA, Wis. — The homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse headed toward opening statements on Tuesday after a jury was seated in just a day despite the polarizing nature of the case.
About a dozen prospective jurors were dismissed Monday after they expressed strong opinions about the case or worried that they couldn’t be fair. Others worried about their personal safety — “No one wants to be sitting in this chair,” one woman said — but the 20-member panel was finally set by early evening.
“I figure either way this goes you’re going to have half the country upset with you and they react poorly,” said another woman, a special education teacher who expressed anxiety about serving. She was chosen.
The jury in the politically charged case must decide whether Rittenhouse acted in self-defense, as his lawyers claim, or was engaged in vigilantism when the 17-year-old opened fire with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle in August 2020, killing two men and wounding a third.
The jury includes 12 jurors and eight alternates; 11 are women and nine are men. Jurors were not asked to identify their race during the selection process, and the court did not immediately provide a racial breakdown of the group.
Rittenhouse traveled to Kenosha from his home in Illinois during unrest that broke out 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.
The now-18-year-old Rittenhouse faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree homicide, the most serious charge against him.
Rittenhouse has been painted by supporters on the right — including foes of the Black Lives Matter movement — as a patriot who took a stand against lawlessness by demonstrators and exercised his Second Amendment gun rights. Others see him as a vigilante and police wannabe.
He is white, as were those he shot, but many activists see an undercurrent of race in the case, in part because the protesters were on the streets to decry police violence against Black people.
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.”
One of the jurors is a gun-owning woman with a high school education who said she was so afraid during the protests that she pulled her cars to the back of her house and made sure her doors were locked. She said she went downtown in the aftermath and cried.
Another juror, a man, said he owns a gun and has it for “home defense.” Another is a pharmacist who said that she was robbed at gunpoint in 2012 but that it would have no effect on her ability to weigh the evidence in this case.
Among those dropped from the case were a man who said he was at the site of the protests when “all that happened” and a woman who said she watched a livestream video of the events and 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.
Prosecutor Thomas Binger also moved to dismiss a woman who said that she has a biracial granddaughter who participated in some of the protests and that she could not be impartial.
Rittenhouse’s attorneys had no objection.
Rittenhouse’s attorney got a prospective juror dropped after she said she would find Rittenhouse guilty of all charges just because he was carrying an assault-style weapon. “I don’t think a weapon like that should belong to the general public,” the woman said.
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.