The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse opened Monday with the challenging task of seating jurors who haven’t already made up their minds about the young aspiring police officer who shot two people to death and wounded a third during a night of anti-racism protests in Kenosha last year.
Rittenhouse was 17 when he made the short trip from his home in Illinois, just across the Wisconsin state line, during unrest that broke out in August 2020 after a white Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man.
Rittenhouse, now 18, faces life in prison if convicted of first-degree homicide, one of several charges against him. His lawyers have argued he fired in self-defense.
Judge Bruce Schroeder, who has experience presiding over high-profile trials, told attorneys he thinks picking the jury from 150 prospective jurors can be accomplished in a day.
Jury selection got off to a slow start Monday because of an unexplained technical problem. During the delay, the judge played a mock game of “Jeopardy!” with prospective jurors in the courtroom. This prompted many negative comments on a Facebook livestream of the trial, with many saying it was inappropriate.
Schroeder told the potential jurors he would select 20 of them to hear the case, which is expected to last about two weeks. Ultimately, 12 will deliberate, and the rest will be dismissed as alternates. He said he will almost certainly not sequester the jury.
The judge stressed the responsibility of deciding the case solely on what the jurors hear in the courtroom. He told potential members of the panel that the case “has become very political. It was involved in the politics of the last election year.”
And he said there has been inaccurate information written by people who “don’t know what you’re going to know. Those of you who are selected for this jury, who are going to hear for yourselves the real evidence in this case.”
The case has been polarizing, with Rittenhouse painted by his backers as a patriot exercising self-defense and Second Amendment gun rights. Others see him as a vigilante and police wannabe who never should have been armed in Kenosha in the first place. 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.
Rittenhouse fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, with an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle 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 and was shot.
William Hanrahan, who spent 19 years as a prosecutor and was a Wisconsin circuit judge for 13, said the attorneys on the case will be trying to influence potential jurors during the selection process.
“What each side is going to do is attempt to prejudice the jury right out of the chute, to strategically plant seeds to subtly set forth their positions,” Hanrahan said. “For a seasoned judge, it’s going to be a challenge here because some lawyers are really good and able to slowly introduce their case in the form of questions to the potential jurors.”
Attorneys for both sides urged the judge to send questionnaires to the people summoned as potential jurors to detect bias and speed the process. Schroeder, the longest-serving circuit court judge in Wisconsin, denied the request.
The judge said he disliked questionnaires in general because he was afraid most people won’t fill them out or that it would tip them off that they may be on the Rittenhouse case, increasing the chances they would discuss it with friends and family.
Rittenhouse faces two homicide counts, one of attempted homicide and two of recklessly endangering safety for firing his weapon near others. He is also charged with possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18.