MADISON, Wis. — Defense attorneys typically encourage their clients to testify in self-defense cases. But Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial is anything but typical and it’s still unclear whether the Illinois man will take the stand to explain to jurors what he was thinking when he shot three people during a protest in Wisconsin last year.
Rittenhouse’s attorney, Mark Richards, told the jury during opening statements last week that they would hear from Rittenhouse himself about how protesters were carrying rocks. But the witnesses that prosecutors have called to the stand since then have frequently made Rittenhouse’s case for him, testifying that the men he shot were the aggressors and that Rittenhouse told people in the immediate aftermath he had no choice but to pull the trigger.
Putting Rittenhouse on the stand now could risk hurting more than helping his case, legal experts say.
“(The state’s witnesses) enabled the defense to tell their story of self-defense more through cross-examination . . . and that may be enough to get the reasonable doubt or self-defense verdict,” said Loyola Marymount University law professor Laurie Levenson. “I think that many lawyers would say that Rittenhouse could cause more problems for himself than advantages by taking the stand at this point.”
Rittenhouse brought a semi-automatic rifle to a protest against police brutality in downtown Kenosha in August 2020. The city was in the throes of several nights of chaotic demonstrations that began after a white Kenosha police officer shot Jacob Blake, who is Black, while responding to a domestic disturbance.
Rittenhouse ended up shooting and killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz in the arm. Prosecutors have charged him with multiple counts, including first-degree intentional homicide, which carries a mandatory life sentence. Rittenhouse has argued he fired in self-defense after the men attacked him.
To win an acquittal on self-defense grounds, defendants must show that they reasonably believed their lives were in danger and that they used the appropriate amount of force. Kenosha-based defense attorney Michael Cicchini, who is not involved in Rittenhouse’s case, said he always puts clients who argue self-defense on the stand to explain their mindset.
“That’s your primary and best source for what the defendant was seeing, thinking and feeling at the time,” Cicchini said. “(The testimony) is from the standpoint of the defendant at that time and place and (within those) circumstances. I’ve never had a self-defense case where a defendant hasn’t testified.”
But Rittenhouse has the momentum with the trial nearly over and may not need to take the stand, other experts said.
Some witnesses called by prosecutors have testified that Rosenbaum threatened to kill Rittenhouse and chased him down; that Huber rushed up to him and hit him with a skateboard; and that Grosskreutz pointed a gun at Rittenhouse while Rittenhouse was sitting in the street.
Bystander video corroborates much of those accounts. Other witnesses have testified that Rittenhouse told them in the immediate aftermath of the shootings that he “had to” pull the trigger.
Phil Turner, a former federal prosecutor turned defense attorney in Chicago, said if Rittenhouse was his client he would not put him on the stand.
“There’s a possibility (he testifies) but I think it’s not great that he will,” Turner said. “He doesn’t need to. I think his defense is already there with all the people who where shot or threatened or whatever that they were the aggressors. (Rittenhouse) can’t add anything to it and the only thing he can do is hurt himself somehow. The prosecution has the burden of proof and in this case, from the sounds of it, they haven’t even come close.”
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