Allowing Kyle Rittenhouse to take the stand during his homicide trial Wednesday was a pivotal decision for the defense and could prove to be a favorable one, legal observers say.
"This is going to help fortify the defense and really show the human side of this defendant — that he's not some cold, calculated person," Phil Turner, a defense attorney and former federal prosecutor in Chicago, said.
Rittenhouse was mostly composed while speaking from the stand in a Kenosha County, Wisconsin, courtroom. But the Illinois teenager broke down, shaking and sobbing, early in his testimony as he described the night he fatally shot two men and wounded a third on the streets of Kenosha as racial justice protests flared last summer.
His young appearance — one witness testified that the 18-year-old defendant has a "baby face" — could help the jury sympathize with him, added Steven Wright, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin.
"He was 17 at the time of the offense," Wright said. "Having someone who looks like a child there might make some jurors see their younger selves in him or their children in him, and they might think, 'What would my younger self have done or my son or daughter have done in his position?'"
Rittenhouse said that he had gone to Kenosha, armed with an AK-style semi-automatic weapon and a medic bag, to protect businesses from looters. He testified that he killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, after Rosenbaum chased him and put his hand on the barrel of his rifle.
It was while describing those events that Rittenhouse lost his composure and looked over at the judge, who ordered a brief recess.
Rittenhouse also said that he shot and killed Anthony Huber, 26, after Huber hit him with a skateboard, and that he shot a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz, 27, wounding him, after Grosskreutz lunged at him "with his pistol pointed directly at my head."
"I didn't do anything wrong," Rittenhouse said. "I defended myself."
Putting defendants on the witness stand can be a thorny proposition if they end up providing inconsistent or conflicting testimony, but it is not uncommon in self-defense cases in Wisconsin, especially when the defendant, like Rittenhouse, does not have a prior criminal record, Wright said.
"Nothing beats a defendant's testimony like when you hear them say, 'I was scared,'" he added.
The trial's eighth day was filled with explosive exchanges as well, with Judge Bruce Schroeder angrily admonishing Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger twice over the prosecution's cross-examination of Rittenhouse.
At one point, Schroeder scolded Binger for committing a "grave constitutional violation" in questioning Rittenhouse's right to remain silent.
"You're right on the borderline, and you may be over, but it better stop," Schroeder said.
Legal experts say the prosecution faces a high bar to disprove Rittenhouse's self-defense claim and provide evidence that he was the aggressor. They said it didn't help the prosecution that some of the state witnesses gave testimony that appeared to favor the defense as well.
For instance, one military veteran who had been patrolling the streets with Rittenhouse testified that he heard Rosenbaum make threats and was acting in a "hyperaggressive" way. Grosskreutz acknowledged in his testimony that he did point his pistol at Rittenhouse, but only because "I thought the defendant was an active shooter."
However, another armed veteran who was with Rittenhouse on the night of the shootings testified Rosenbaum was a "babbling idiot" and did not appear to pose a serious threat.
"I think the state did a solid job presenting their case, but almost every single witness who testified being there also supported the defense," Wright said.
"When you have your own witnesses who almost appear on the fence, it's not going to help with the jury," he added.
Rittenhouse faces several charges, including first-degree reckless homicide, and could be sentenced to up to life in prison if convicted.