Analyzing Kyle Rittenhouse’s self-defense claims as jury selection begins in his trial

Jury selection began Monday in a highly watched murder trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The trial will revolve around questions over protests in 2020 that led to riots and whether the defendant, Kyle Rittenhouse, recklessly shot people or acted in self-defense. Stephanie Sy reports and gets the latest from Milwaukee-based criminal defense attorney Craig Mastantuono.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jury selection began today in a highly watched murder trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The trial will revolve around questions over protests in 2020 that led to riots and whether the defendant recklessly shot people or acted in self-defense.

    Stephanie Sy begins with this report.

  • Judge Bruce Schroeder, Kenosha County Circuit Court:

    We're going to pick a jury to try a criminal case.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Kyle Rittenhouse is accused of killing two people and wounding another with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle in late August of last year.

    Now 18, the charges against him range from murder to reckless endangerment. Rittenhouse pled not guilty to all the charges. He is claiming self-defense. The shooting happened during a time of racial unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Three days earlier, Jacob Blake, a Black man, had been shot seven times by a white police officer.

    Blake survived, but was left paralyzed from the waist down. The officer who shot him was never charged. The shooting occurred nearly three months after the police killing of George Floyd, and sparked protests, some of which became violent, with buildings set on fire and intense clashes with police.

    On the third night of protests, Kyle Rittenhouse, then 17, left his hometown in Illinois and crossed state lines into Kenosha. He joined other heavily armed vigilantes, who said they band together to protect businesses.

    Rittenhouse first shot Joseph Rosenbaum in the head. Rosenbaum, seen here wearing a red shirt before he allegedly chased and lunged at Rittenhouse, was not armed. Moments later, video footage captured Rittenhouse being chased by a crowd of protesters and having objects thrown at him. He falls and then shoots at the protesters surrounding him.

    Anthony Huber is killed. Rittenhouse also shoots Gaige Grosskreutz, who was wielding a handgun. Hours later, accompanied by his mother, Rittenhouse turned himself in to police.

    Following his arrest, Rittenhouse garnered support from gun rights advocates and far right groups, such as the Proud Boys. Online fund-raisers helped pay for his $2 million bail and legal defense.

    And during a White House press briefing, then-President Trump suggested Rittenhouse acted in self-defense.

    Donald Trump, Former President of the United States: He was trying to get away from them, I guess, it looks like. And he fell. And then they very violently attacked him. I guess he was in very big trouble. He would have been — he probably would have been killed.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The judge overseeing the case acknowledged the charged climate that surrounded the incident.

  • Judge Bruce Schroeder:

    This case has become very political. Those of you who are selected for this jury who are going to hear for yourselves the real evidence in this case.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    The trial is expected to last two to three weeks.

    Let's break down more of the issues at play in the trial.

    And, for that, I'm joined by Milwaukee-based criminal defense attorney Craig Mastantuono.

    Mr. Mastantuono, thank you for joining the "NewsHour."

    This trial has been more than a year in the making. As it gets under way, what are you looking out for?

  • Craig Mastantuono, Criminal Defense Attorney:

    Well, I think timing is key for both sides in this case.

    I think that the prosecution probably wants to draw out the timing of the offense in question to make them a little longer than the defense would like. I think the defense is probably going to try to draw the jury's focus to the events in a shorter time frame, right to the events of tension as they present it and whether Mr. Rittenhouse engaged in self-defense at that moment.

    The prosecution might be wanting to move the time frame a little bit outward to ask questions like, what situation did Mr. Rittenhouse place himself in leading up to those events and what occurred before those events took place to cause the tension?

    So, timing, I think, is going to be interesting, as we get into the presentation of evidence.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    We know that the defense is saying Kyle Rittenhouse was acting in self-defense in those chaotic moments that you described.

    In the simplest terms, Craig, what does his legal team need to show to prove that?

  • Craig Mastantuono:

    Well, in a technical sense, they don't need to show anything. The prosecution needs to disprove that Mr. Rittenhouse acted in self-defense.

    It's an affirmative defense in Wisconsin, self-defense. It's a justification, if you will. So if any evidence is raised by the defense that Mr. Rittenhouse acted in self-defense — and that's either through cross-examination or presentation of testimony — then the prosecution then takes on the burden to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury.

    And self-defense, in kind of a sentence or two, is whether Mr. Rittenhouse reasonably believed that his actions were necessary to prevent interference with his person or to prevent an assault on his person. And when lethal force is used, as it was in this case, deadly force, then there is a requirement that the defendant reasonably believed that that force was necessary to prevent lethal force against himself.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Craig, this is already such a fraught case with political battle lines drawn.

    And during a pretrial hearing, Judge Schroeder said he doesn't want the men Rittenhouse killed described as victims. But then he said the men he killed could be described as rioters or looters.

    Can you explain the judge's reasoning? And did it hand the defense an early advantage?

  • Craig Mastantuono:

    I'm not positive it did.

    The first part of his ruling is consistent. I have been in trial in Judge Schroeder's court before. He always makes an order that nobody shall be referred to as a victim until that's proven, meaning a crime has been proven. So that's what the jury is there to determine. And the judge is simply deferring to that premise.

    On the second part, Judge Schroeder did make that ruling and said until it's supported by the evidence. So nobody's going to use terms rioters or looters until the attorneys introduce evidence that that actually occurred by the people they want to apply those terms to.

    So I think we will see that play out as the trial goes on.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    In questioning potential jurors today, the assistant district attorney asked this question: Can we all agree that human life is more valuable than property?

    Does that give us insight into the prosecution's strategy?

  • Craig Mastantuono:

    Sure.

    I think that a defense claim is going to be that Mr. Rittenhouse was there to protect property in Kenosha. That's the reason he came up from Illinois. The district attorney is gauging people's feelings about that. And he got into that a little bit. There wasn't a discussion it, but it was introduced as a topic in jury selection.

    And that will be introduced again as the evidence moves forward.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Craig Mastantuono, a criminal defense attorney, thank you for joining us on this first day of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial.

  • Craig Mastantuono:

    Thank you.

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