KENOSHA, Wisc. — A Wisconsin jury on Friday found Kyle Rittenhouse not guilty in the fatal shooting of two men during protests in Kenosha last year, capping a trial that touched on issues of gun rights and race.
Rittenhouse, 18, from nearby Antioch, Illinois, was cleared on all five charges related to his actions on Aug. 25 last year, during protests over the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white Kenosha police officer.
Rittenhouse was charged with reckless homicide in the slaying of Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and intentional homicide in the death of Anthony Huber, 26.
He also faced a charge of attempted intentional homicide for severely wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, a 27-year-old paramedic from suburban Milwaukee who was there that night volunteering his medical services, and two counts of recklessly endangering safety.
Rittenhouse, in a dark suit and burgundy shirt, was overcome with emotion when the fifth not guilty verdict was read in court.
He doubled over and then hugged defense attorney Corey Chirafisi, who had to tell his client to relax and breathe.
Fellow defense attorney Mark Richards joyously hit his hand on the table as the final not guilty verdict was read, while prosecutors looked down as the jurors' findings were announced.
Families of those shot and killed held hands in court and cried as the verdicts were read.
After three and a half days of deliberations, some in the panel appeared fatigued in the jury box. As the verdicts were read, some had their hands on their chins, rubbed their eyes and appeared ill-at-ease, shifting in their chairs or folding their arms across their chests.
The jury of seven women and five men deliberated for about 25 hours since Tuesday morning, and Richards said he was fearful the long talks meant a compromise set of verdicts that would send his client to prison for at least some time.
“As time went on, we were afraid there was some horse trading in the jury room and that’s what really concerned us,” Richards said.
Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder thanked jurors for their work.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better jury to work with,” said Schroeder. “It’s truly been my pleasure … just in terms of your attentiveness and the cooperation that you gave to us.”
The judge told jurors the system worked.
“It justifies the confidence that the founders of our country placed in you,” Schroeder said.
The Kenosha County District Attorney’s Office asked community members to "continue to express their opinions and feelings about this verdict in a civil and peaceful manner."
"While we are disappointed with the verdict, it must be respected," the office said in a statement. "We are grateful to the members of the jury for their diligent and thoughtful deliberations. The Kenosha community has endured much over the past 15 months, and yet we remain resilient and strong."
Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers pleaded for calm before the verdict but deployed 500 National Guard in anticipation of post-verdict protests.
"No verdict will be able to bring back the lives of Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum or heal Gaige Grosskreutz's injuries just as no verdict can heal the wounds or trauma experienced by Jacob Blake and his family," Evers said in a statement after the verdicts.
"I have seen the pain and the frustration of so many and we must remain steadfast in our commitment to ending violence in our communities."
President Joe Biden urged Americans to accept the verdicts and remain peaceful in protest.
"While the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken," the president said in statement.
"I ran on a promise to bring Americans together, because I believe that what unites us is far greater than what divides us."
Emotions outside Kenosha's courthouse were high, but the scene was generally peaceful in the wake of the verdicts.
“This is a total mockery of what justice should be. There’s no way he should be going home. Our personal opinion is that he should be going to jail,” said Justin Blake, the uncle of Jacob Blake. “This is a sad day for justice in America.”
While it appeared that a majority of those protesting outside court favored conviction, there was also a fair share of Rittenhouse supporters.
“This is the verdict that the majority of America wanted,” said California resident Brandon Lesco, who held up a “Free Kyle” sign after the verdicts were rendered.
Community activist Tanya McLean said she was unhappy, but not shocked, by the not guilty verdicts.
"We’re gonna have to really rethink what it means for us in this community,” said McLean, executive director of Leaders of Kenosha, told NBC News. “I wish I could say I’m surprised by this decision but I’m not.”
McLean said she fears for the safety of her and her two children.
“It shows that we can be gunned down in the street and there are no consequences and that’s why they feel so emboldened to do what they do,” McLean said.
Huber's parents issued a lengthy statement, saying they were disappointed.
"Today’s verdict means there is no accountability for the person who murdered our son," they said. "It sends the unacceptable message that armed civilians can show up in any town, incite violence, and then use the danger they have created to justify shooting people in the street."
Attorneys who represent Rosenbaum's family and Grosskreutz called for peaceful protest.
"Today we grieve for the families of those slain by Kyle Rittenhouse. Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum did not deserve to die that night," the lawyers said. "For now, we ask for peace from everyone hurting and that the public respect the privacy of the victims and their families."
Blake was paralyzed from the waist down in the shooting that led to days of at times violent protests in Kenosha and across the country.
Rittenhouse and other armed men said they went to Kenosha to protect private property during the protest.
Huber and Rosenbaum were not armed when Rittenhouse shot them, but Grosskreutz came toward him with a pistol in hand when Rittenhouse opened fire.
Rittenhouse also attempted to shoot an unknown person, known in court as “jump kick man,” who tried kicking the defendant in the face, and prosecutors said Rittenhouse could have wounded another man when he opened fire on Rosenbaum.
Rittenhouse testified in his own defense last week and said all the shootings were acts of self-defense.
The move was questioned in some legal circles, but Richards said they had no choice because their mock trials showed test jurors responded well to Rittenhouse explaining himself.
"I had to put him on, it wasn't a close call," Richards said. "In Wisconsin if you don't put a client on the stand, you're going to lose, period."
NBC legal analyst Danny Cevallos said the law was always in the defense’s favor, because of the burden prosecutors faced in fighting the self-defense argument.
“It’s not so much that it was a poor prosecution, but really poor facts for the prosecution,” Cevallos said. “In Wisconsin, the prosecution had to disprove self-defense in all the elements or any one of them beyond a reasonable doubt in addition to proving their case.”
Former federal prosecutor Joyce Vance said evidence that Grosskreutz had a gun in is hand when he was shot by Rittenhouse played a key role in the acquittals.
“He essentially, on cross-examination, conceded self-defense talking about the fact that there was a gun in his hand,” Vance said. “The prosecution tried to argue their way out of that situation. But I think the die was cast in a significant way at that point.”
The defense lawyer, Richards, refused to second-guess his client’s action that night, when Rittenhouse armed himself with an AR-15-style weapon to protect private property in Kenosha while also providing first aid.
Rittenhouse, then 17, kept the weapon at a friend's home in Wisconsin.
“I personally don’t like people carrying AR-15s around,” Richards said. “There was so much anger and so much fear in Kenosha on Aug. 25 that people did arm themselves.”
Rittenhouse aspires to be a nurse and Richards urged his client to keep a low profile.
“He has to get on with his life the best he can,” Richards said. “I think eventually some anonymity will come back to it. I don’t think he’ll continue to live in this area, it’s too dangerous.”
David K. Li reported from New York, Deon J. Hampton reported from Kenosha