‘Chaos tourist’ or selfless teen? Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial begins with dueling portraits of the shooter

Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial began Tuesday with dueling portraits of a shooter whose case has come to embody the country’s deep political divide.

The prosecution painted Rittenhouse as a “chaos tourist” who arrived in Kenosha amid protests over the police shooting of Jacob Blake to impose his own sense of justice. The defense, in response, portrayed him as a selfless, if naive, teenager who was forced to stop people from taking his gun and using it against him.

“We have two very different outlooks on the events,” defense attorney Mark Richards said.

In August 2020, Rittenhouse — a 17-year-old from north suburban Antioch — crossed state lines and patrolled downtown Kenosha, amid turmoil surrounding the shooting of Blake, a Black man, by a white officer. Carrying an AR-15-style rifle that police say a friend illegally purchased for him, Rittenhouse fatally shot two people and wounded a third.

Blake’s shooting and the violent aftermath loom heavily over the trial, as a case with a very technical legal question has morphed into a national referendum on gun rights and social justice. For local residents — including many on the jury — the fears and anger they experienced have not faded from memory either.

The stately county courthouse where the trial is being held sustained damage during the protests, as people threw objects at the building and smashed windows. From the courtroom, spectators can clearly see the spot where Rittenhouse went from self-appointed peacekeeper to a national headline when he fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz.

“Like moths to a flame, tourists from outside our community were drawn to the chaos,” Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger said, reminding jurors Rittenhouse traveled from suburban Chicago to enter the fray.

As part of Rittenhouse’s self-defense strategy, his attorney vilified the men Rittenhouse shot and blamed them for the outcomes. Richards avoided any opportunity to humanize the men, skipping even the blanket acknowledgment most defense attorneys make toward the victims’ families in self-defense cases.

Instead, he pointed the finger directly at Rosenbaum, showing pictures of him participating in a dumpster fire, confronting armed people and waving a chain prior to the shooting. Without offering evidence, Richards said Rosenbaum chased Rittenhouse to take his gun.

“Mr. Rosenbaum could have stopped at any time,” Richards said. “He wants to steal my client’s firearm and carry out the threat he made earlier.”

Prosecutors, however, told jurors the FBI has images showing Rittenhouse was the one who initially followed Rosenbaum. The recording was captured by an infrared camera attached to an FBI fixed wing aircraft that was monitoring the city during the chaos, Binger said.

In a procedural move intended to have the video introduced into evidence, prosecutors played footage for the jury without explaining its significance. Courtroom spectators could not immediately identify the figures in the grainy, black-and-white video, which was taken by an aircraft flying 8,500 feet overheard.

Binger also told jurors that Rosenbaum died from a shot in the back. Rittenhouse, who had boasted earlier in the evening that he was a “medic” and was carrying a first aid kit, did not try to help Rosenbaum after shooting him.

“He ran away,” Binger said.

As Rittenhouse fled the scene, he shot both Huber and Grosskreutz when they tried to stop him. Binger described the men as selfless, while the defense said they attacked Rittenhouse “like an animal.”

Rittenhouse, now 18, yawned frequently during both of the opening statements and only occasionally glanced at videos replaying events of that night. His mother, Wendy, could be seen wiping her eyes as she watched from the half-filled gallery. During his opening statement, Richards intimated his client might testify in his own defense.

During the selection process, many jurors discussed the anger and fear they felt during the protests. Some acknowledged plans to protect themselves with their own guns if needed during the demonstrations, while others recalled driving through the shattered downtown in the days following and crying.

Binger acknowledged those emotions, calling the vandalism and looting “two of the roughest nights our community has ever seen.” While validating the jurors’ memories, however, Binger repeatedly urged them to remember that Rittenhouse was the one person to kill someone during the chaos.

“We need to keep in mind the context of that night,” Binger said. “We need to keep in mind the fact there were hundreds of people on the street that night experiencing the same chaos, the same loud noises, the same gunfire and the same arson, the same tear gas, the same hostile confrontations with people who believed the opposite of them. And yet out of these hundreds of people only one person killed anyone that night, only one person shot anyone that night. When we consider the reasonableness of the defendant’s actions, I ask you to keep that in mind.”

Three witnesses testified Tuesday, including Rittenhouse’s close friend Dominick Black. During an hourlong appearance, Black acknowledged he bought the AR-15-style rifle used in the shootings because Rittenhouse wasn’t old enough to purchase it for himself.

Black, who used to date Rittenhouse’s sister, said he planned to keep the gun at his stepfather’s house until Rittenhouse was legally old enough to possess it, but Rittenhouse grabbed the gun before they headed out to guard a used car lot the night of the shootings.

Under defense questioning, Black acknowledged he didn’t do anything to stop Rittenhouse from taking the weapon that night and, in fact, went with him to get chest straps to carry the firearms while patrolling the downtown. Rittenhouse faces a misdemeanor gun charge related to carrying his weapon in downtown Kenosha despite being too young to do so.

Black faces up to 12 years in prison for intentionally supplying a minor with a weapon used to kill two people. He testified he did not receive immunity or any other deal in exchange for testifying against his friend.

Testimony resumes Wednesday, with local social media influencer Koerri Washington walking jurors through some of the videos he livestreamed on Facebook that night.

cmgutowski@chicagotribune.com

sstclair@chicagotribune.com