KENOSHA, Wis. (CN) — Jury selection was completed Monday in the murder trial of 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot three protesters, killing two, during chaotic demonstrations over the shooting of Black man by white police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August of 2020.
Kenosha County Circuit Court Judge Bruce Schroeder began the selection process with a pool of about 150 potential jurors. He previously declined requests from attorneys for both the state and Rittenhouse’s defense team to use questionnaires to screen jurors ahead of time, in part because he thought they would tip people off about their selection for Rittenhouse’s closely watched and highly politicized trial.
The selection process wrapped up after 7 p.m. Monday evening, resulting in a final panel of 12 jurors and eight alternates comprised of 11 women and nine men, with one person of color. The trial will begin in earnest Tuesday morning with opening statements. It is expected to last two weeks.
On Aug. 25, 2020 – more than 14 months ago – Rittenhouse, then 17, crossed state lines from his home in nearby Antioch, Illinois, and shot Anthony Huber, Joseph Rosenbaum and Gaige Grosskreutz during protests that raged for several days in Kenosha after local police officer Rusten Sheskey shot Jacob Blake seven times while responding to a domestic disturbance, leaving Blake, 30, partially paralyzed.
Huber, 26, and Rosenbaum, 36, were killed, while 27-year-old Grosskreutz survived a gunshot wound to his right bicep.
Rittenhouse is charged with five felonies, including reckless and intentional homicide, as well as a misdemeanor for illegally possessing the AR-15 he used in the shootings – obtained and provided by an of-age friend in Wisconsin – and a citation for violating the emergency curfew in place in Kenosha the night of the shootings. He faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree homicide.
Rittenhouse came from Illinois to Kenosha to protect life and private property amid days of demonstrations that turned riotous and violent come nightfall and resulted in the arson of dozens of businesses and cars, joining other self-styled peacekeepers armed with guns at the protests. His lawyers say he shot in self-defense while being chased and attacked by a crowd of protesters.
Taking place astride a season of protests against racist police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, the Rittenhouse shootings immediately ignited a media firestorm and polarized public opinion into high-decibel right and left wings.
Those supporting Rittenhouse have painted him as a patriot and made him a symbol for Second Amendment gun rights and the exercise of self-defense. His opponents decry him as a wannabe vigilante who made a precarious situation worse by coming to the Kenosha protest armed with a semiautomatic rifle. Rittenhouse is white, as were those he shot, but many are watching his trial as the latest referendum on race and the American legal system.
Conservatives who flocked to Rittenhouse’s cause raised his $2 million bail by November of last year. This was accomplished in part through fundraising efforts by the right-wing #FigthBack Foundation, headed by prominent Atlanta defamation attorney L. Lin Wood, who was once part of Rittenhouse’s defense team along with Los Angeles civil attorney John Pierce. Disputes between fundraisers have since simmered over who should get the bond money once Rittenhouse’s trial concludes.
In winnowing down the jury pool on Monday, attorneys for the state and the defense drilled potential jurors with questions touching on how the protests and violence affected them, whether they know anyone who protested, whether they suffered any property damage, whether they felt the need to protect themselves in reaction to the protest and their familiarity with firearms.
Anxieties among jurors were evident regarding the potential that not only could a verdict in Rittenhouse’s trial mean trouble for the Kenosha community all over again, but that jurors’ own safety could be at risk as well, highlighting the tense atmosphere in the courthouse and the surrounding southeastern Wisconsin town of about 100,000.
One juror worried about concealing her identity so it would not be known they were on the Rittenhouse jury, saying she took a Lyft to the courthouse Monday morning because she did not want to risk anyone seeing her car.
Another expressed similar anxiety, saying that “either way this goes, you’re going to have half of the county upset with you.”
Schroeder—the longest tenured Wisconsin circuit court judge with 38 years on the bench and another roughly 12 years as a prosecutor—tried to assuage jurors’ fears by saying “I’ve never had a juror threatened, I’ve never had a juror bothered in any way” in all his years trying cases.
“I think that the fear people have is greater than the reality of the risk,” he said.
The judge said on Monday that there is next to no chance he will sequester the jury during the trial, meaning jurors likely won't be isolated from the public during the proceedings.
Schroeder was the subject of some recent negative attention for his refusal to allow prosecutors to refer to the people Rittenhouse shot as “victims” per his ordinary practice during trials, while allowing the defense to call the people he shot “rioters,” “looters,” or “arsonists” provided the evidence can prove it, which he decided during a pretrial hearing on Oct. 25.
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