Lesser Charges Could Have Helped Convict Rittenhouse


On Nov.19, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges against him. (Courtesy of Twitter)

On Nov. 19, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges against him over the violence that ensued in Kenosha, Wisconsin on Aug. 25, 2020, on the grounds of self-defense. Although this acquittal is within the Wisconsin state law, laws that permit a 17-year-old to shoot three people, killing two, without consequences cannot stand. 

Rittenhouse attended a protest for the death of Jacob Blake, a Black man, at the hands of white police officer Rusten Shesky. He claimed that he attended the protest armed with an AR-15 rifle in order to protect businesses from looting and arson. After an anonymous gunshot was fired into the air, Rittenhouse shot four times at a man that lunged towards him. Joseph Rosenbaum, the victim, died from a shot to the head. A group began chasing Rittenhouse. Anthony Huber, another of Rittenhouse’s victims, died from a shot to the chest and Gaige Grosskreutz, the only surviving victim, was hospitalized from a shot to the arm. 

Rittenhouse was charged with first-degree intentional homicide, among numerous other charges. The defense argued that Rittenhouse was not guilty of the charges under Wisconsin’s self-defense laws. The prosecution argued that Rittenhouse was responsible because he created the dangerous situation by bringing a deadly weapon. 

Wisconsin’s self-defense laws allow for the use of force against an assailant if they “reasonably believe that he or she is in imminent danger of death or great bodily harm … [if] he or she has exhausted every other reasonable means to escape from or otherwise avoid death or great bodily harm.” Although Rittenhouse walked into the protest himself, armed with a deadly weapon, the prosecution was unable to persuade the jury that Rittenhouse was guilty for the homicide charges, likely because Grosskreutz testified that he was pointing his weapon at Rittenhouse.

Another possible reason Rittenhouse was acquitted of the three homicide charges is that, under Wisconsin law, the charges require a high level of assumption of malicious intent. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove that Rittenhouse completely intended to kill Rosenbaum or Huber when he shot them as opposed to Rittenhouse simply shooting as he fled in fear. The prosecution would likely need verbal testimony from Rittenhouse himself that showed he had no regard for the lives of Rosenbaum and Huber. 

Some argue that a clip of Rittenhouse from two weeks prior is evidence enough to prove that he had malicious intent. The prosecution moved to submit a video into evidence that shows Rittenhouse saying he would shoot shoplifters outside of a drug store. Rittenhouse claims he saw that one of the people was armed and said “Bro, I wish I had my f—— AR. I’d start shooting rounds at them.” Judge Schroeder, however, said he found the circumstance of the statement too “dissimilar” from the crime at hand and would not admit the clip to evidence. Without the video clip in evidence, the prosecution struggled to prove Rittenhouse had malicious intent. 

If Rittenhouse was presented with lesser charges he may have been convicted given the lower burden of proof. If the prosecution’s ultimate goal was to get a conviction by any means necessary, it should have charged Rittenhouse with a lesser charge like second-degree intentional homicide. This could be reasonably argued with the evidence in the trial and would have been more likely to obtain a conviction. But, because the prosecution charged Rittenhouse with what seemed to be true and just, Wisconsin self-defense laws allowed the defense to argue their way to Rittenhouse’s freedom.

Another critique was over Judge Schroeder’s behavior in the courtroom. People have argued that his diction and what he emphasized in the arguments showed bias in favor of Rittenhouse and did not allow for a fair trial.

Interestingly, Schroeder has been known to be harsh on defendants, with many defense teams filing to move their cases out of Schroeder’s courtroom. When Thomas Binger, the lead prosecutor in the Rittenhouse trial, criticized one of Schroeder’s rulings in what he described as “good faith,” Schroeder snapped back saying, “I don’t believe you when you say that you were acting in good faith, I don’t believe that, OK?” Some argue that Shroeder’s behavior toward Binger may have swayed the jury to siding more closely with the defense. 

Other criticism includes Schroeder’s call for the courtroom to applaud a veteran defense witness and his refusal to refer to those Rittenhouse shot as “victims.” On Nov. 11, Veterans Day, Schroeder began the day by asking if anyone had served in the military. Schroeder commended John Black, a veteran and the defense’s expert witness on use-of-force and instructed the courtroom to applaud Black for his service to the country. 

Many have argued that this call to applaud a witness on the side of the defense may have swayed the jury in the defense’s favor. If Black had spoken up himself, or if Schroeder did not know he was a veteran, this behavior would have simply been a gesture to thank veterans on a day of remembrance. However, this cannot be seen as completely unbiased because Schroeder knowingly called on the defense’s witness and instructed the courtroom to applaud. Legal experts have argued that there is often some bias in court proceedings, but in a high-profile nationally-publicized case like this, behaviors that may show bias should be kept to a minimum. 

Schroeder’s disallowing of the use of the word “victims” to describe those shot by Rittenhouse has also attracted attention for showing bias on the side of the defense. Schroeder instructed the words “rioters,” “looters” or “arsonists” be used instead. This is entirely inappropriate for two reasons. First, it paints the protestors as violent, dangerous hooligans who were causing complete destruction. While it is true that people at the protest were vandalizing and damaging property, it is wholly incorrect to refer to everyone as a “rioter,” “looter” or “arsonist.” This diction can subconsciously sway the jury to view the shooting victims as dangerous and in need of control, even by use of deadly force. Secondly, this paints Rittenhouse as a heroic citizen who took care of the area by ridding the streets of dangerous people. 

During the trial, Judge Schroeder said: “This is not a political trial.” When a Black man is shot seven times in front of his children by a cop, it becomes a political trial. When the charges that originally send the cop to Blake’s place of residence are dropped, it becomes a political trial. When Rusten Shesky is not charged for shooting Jacob Blake, it becomes a political trial. When a teenage boy walks into a protest against police brutality holding a deadly weapon, it becomes a political trial.

Rittenhouse shot three people, killing two, and was acquitted because of Wisconsin state law. Laws that allow a teenage boy to go free after killing two people cannot be allowed any longer. While Judge Schroeder’s behavior may have swayed the jury to rule in favor of the defense, it was ultimately under Wisconsin self-defense laws and due to the wording of the presented charges that Rittenhouse was able to walk free. Unfortunately, with the way that the justice system works, if the prosecution wanted a conviction, they would’ve needed to charge Rittenhouse with lesser charges. This is a clear example of the failures of our current justice system.

Ava Knight, FCRH ’25, is a neuroscience major from Seattle, Wash.