Kyle Rittenhouse, the American teenager who shot dead two men during protests and riots against police brutality in Wisconsin last year, was acquitted of all charges on Friday after a high-profile and politically divisive trial.
A jury found Rittenhouse, 18, not guilty of reckless and intentional homicide and other charges stemming from the shootings that took place in August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Rittenhouse, who claimed he acted in self-defense, sobbed and shook as the verdict was read, sank into his chair, and embraced his lawyer before rushing out of the courtroom.
President Joe Biden warned against violence following the verdict in the closely watched trial and appealed for calm.
“While the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken,” Biden said in a statement. “I urge everyone to express their views peacefully, consistent with the rule of law.”
There were scattered cheers and clapping from supporters of Rittenhouse outside the Kenosha courthouse after the verdict.
Several opponents marched around beating drums and chanting “Guilty, guilty, the whole system is guilty as hell.”
Rittenhouse testified during the two-week trial that he shot dead two men and wounded another with his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle after being attacked.
Prosecutors dismissed the self-defense claim, saying it was the then 17-year-old Rittenhouse who “provoked” the events during a night of unrest in Kenosha.
– National attention –
Rittenhouse faced five charges — one count of intentional homicide, one count of reckless homicide, one count of attempted intentional homicide and two counts of recklessly endangering safety.
The most serious charge — intentional homicide — carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison.
The jury deliberated for a total of 26 hours over four days before delivering a unanimous verdict of not guilty on all counts.
The case drew national attention because it arose from the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that swept the country last year and featured a controversial mix of guns, racial tensions, and vigilantism.
Civil unrest erupted in Kenosha, a city of 100,000 on the shores of Lake Michigan, in August 2020 after a white policeman shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back several times during an arrest, leaving him paralyzed.
In right-wing and pro-gun circles, Rittenhouse, who claimed he went to Kenosha to protect businesses from looters and act as a medic, was hailed as a heroic figure.
Prosecutors said Rittenhouse — who lived in the neighboring state of Illinois — had come to Kenosha as a self-appointed “junior policeman” and “made a series of reckless decisions.”
“Nobody deputised him,” prosecutor Thomas Binger said.
– ‘Miscarriage of justice’ –
Shannon Watts, the founder of gun control group Moms Demand Action, was among those denouncing the not guilty finding.
“That a teenager could travel across state lines to a protest he had nothing to do with; shoot three people, killing two; and face no criminal consequences is a miscarriage of justice and an indictment of our criminal justice system,” Watts said.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said the verdict “sends a horrible message to this country.” “To call this a miscarriage of justice is an understatement,” he said.
The NAACP, the African-American civil rights group, said the verdict is a “travesty and fails to deliver justice on behalf of those who lost their lives.”
“A system that legitimizes vigilante murder is deeply broken,” tweeted Wisconsin Representative Gwen Moore, a Democrat.
– ‘Remain peaceful’ –
Republican lawmakers welcomed the not guilty finding.
“Justice has been served,” said Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson. “I hope everyone can accept the verdict, remain peaceful, and let the community of Kenosha heal and rebuild.”
Former president Donald Trump, in a statement released on the Twitter account of his chief spokeswoman Liz Harrington, said: “Congratulations to Kyle Rittenhouse for being found INNOCENT of all charges. It”s called being found NOT GUILTY — And by the way, if that’s not self-defense, nothing is!”
Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers has put 500 members of the state National Guard on standby in the event of trouble.
In his statement, Biden said he had spoken to Evers and offered assistance if needed to ensure public safety.
Brianna Nelson, 37, a member of an advocacy group that works to deescalate tense situations, told AFP outside the court she was disappointed but not surprised by the verdict.
“It’s a time for unity in the community,” Nelson said. “It’s an educational moment for both sides. We don’t have to agree but we have to live together peacefully.”
Speaking to reporters after the verdict, Rittenhouse’s attorney, Mark Richards, said he believes his client is remorseful.
“He is in counseling for PTSD,” Richards said. “He doesn’t sleep at night.
“I personally don’t like people carrying AR-15s around,” Richards added, but “he was legal in having that firearm.”