KENOSHA, Wis. - Following the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, who plead self-defense in the fatal shooting of two men and wounding of a third during a night of protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., called for a federal review of the verdict by the U.S. Department of Justice.
"This heartbreaking verdict is a miscarriage of justice and sets a dangerous precedent whih justifies federal review by DOJ. Justice cannot tolerate armed persons crossing state lines looking for trouble while people engage in First Amendment-protected protest," Nadler wrote in a tweet posted Friday afternoon.
Can Kyle Rittenhouse face federal charges?
In order for Rittenhouse to face federal charges, there are several complicated factors that could make it unlikely for federal prosecutors to pursue a case.
For most homicide cases, federal law typically only applies in crimes that specifically violate federal law. According to Shouse Law Group, a criminal justice team in Los Angeles, the crime of murder "is prosecuted in state courts as a state crime. But murder becomes a federal crime when it occurs in violation of federal law, or when it takes place on a federal land or territory."
Shouse Law Group writes, "The federal crime of murder is defined as the ‘unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought.’ In general, there are seven scenarios when an unlawful killing violates the laws of the federal government."
According to the law group, these include when:
- the murder is of a federal judge or a federal law enforcement official
- the killing is of an immediate family member of a federal law enforcement official
- the murder is of an elected or appointed federal official
- the killing is committed during a bank robbery
- the killing takes place aboard a ship at sea that is engaged in interstate commerce per the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution
- the murder was designed to influence a court case
- the killing takes place on federal property
Rittenhouse was not accused of a hate crime and because he is not a member of law enforcement, he cannot be charged with depriving anyone of their civil rights as a federal agent. Rittenhouse was also not accused of a robbery on federal property or involving a federal business.
The charges Rittenhouse was facing became a flashpoint in the debate over guns, vigilantism and racial justice in the country.
He had been charged with homicide, attempted homicide and reckless endangering after killing two men and wounding a third with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle during a tumultuous night of protests over police violence against Black people in the summer of 2020. The former police youth cadet is white, as were those he shot.
The anonymous jury, which appeared to be overwhelmingly White, deliberated for close to three-and-a-half days.
Rittenhouse could have gotten life in prison if found guilty on the most serious charge, first-degree intentional homicide, or what some other states call first-degree murder.
What happened in Kenosha
Rittenhouse was 17 when he went from his home in Antioch, Illinois, to Kenosha after businesses in the city were ransacked and burned over the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white police officer.
Carrying a weapon that authorities said was illegally purchased for the underage Rittenhouse, he joined other armed citizens in what he said was an effort to protect property and provide medical aid.
Bystander and drone video captured most of the frenzied chain of events that followed: Rittenhouse killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, then shot to death protester Anthony Huber, 26, and wounded demonstrator Gaige Grosskreutz, now 28.
Prosecutors portrayed Rittenhouse as a "wannabe soldier" who had gone looking for trouble that night and was responsible for creating a dangerous situation in the first place by pointing his rifle at demonstrators.
But Rittenhouse testified: "I didn’t do anything wrong. I defended myself."
Breaking into sobs at one point, he told the jury he opened fire after Rosenbaum chased him and made a grab for his gun. He said he was afraid his rifle was going to be wrested away and used to kill him.
Huber was then killed after hitting Rittenhouse in the head or neck with a skateboard, and Grosskreutz was shot after pointing a gun of his own at Rittenhouse.
What happened in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial
The case was part of an extraordinary confluence of trials that reflected the deep divide over race in the United States: In Georgia, three white men are on trial in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, while in Virginia, a trial is underway in a lawsuit over the deadly white-supremacist rally held in Charlottesville in 2017.
Rittenhouse had also been charged with possession of a dangerous weapon by a person under 18, a misdemeanor that had appeared likely to lead to a conviction. But the judge threw out that charge before jury deliberations after the defense argued that the Wisconsin law did not apply to the long-barreled rifle used by Rittenhouse.
Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder’s handling of the trial drew attention at several points, including when he led applause for military veterans on Veterans Day just before a defense witness who had been in the Army was about to take the stand. The judge also let Rittenhouse himself draw juror numbers from a raffle drum to set the final 12 who deliberated.
Video and testimony from some of the prosecution’s own witnesses seemed to buttress Rittenhouse’s claim of self-defense.
Witnesses described Rosenbaum as "hyperaggressive" and said that he dared others to shoot him and threatened to kill Rittenhouse earlier that night. A videographer testified Rosenbaum lunged for the rifle just before he was shot, and a pathologist said his injuries appeared to indicate his hand was over the barrel.
Also, Rosenbaum’s fiancee disclosed that he was on medication for bipolar disorder and depression. Rittenhouse’s lawyers branded Rosenbaum a "crazy person."
Why the judge dropped the gun charges
Prosecutors in the trial may have lost their best chance at convicting the Illinois man of something when the judge threw out a charge that Rittenhouse was a minor in possession of a dangerous weapon.
That jury never got to consider the gun possession charge — one that at one time had seemed a slam-dunk for the prosecution. Rittenhouse was 17 at the time, and there was no dispute that he was armed the night of the shootings with a Smith and Wesson AR-style semi-automatic rifle strapped to his chest.
Though the charge was only a misdemeanor — punishable by a maximum nine months in jail — it might have offered the jury a way to convict Rittenhouse of a lesser crime if they were persuaded by his self-defense claims but agreed with prosecutors that he made a poor decision to carry a rifle on the streets of Kenosha.
Hours before closing arguments began on Monday, Judge Schroeder granted a defense motion to toss out the weapons charge. Rittenhouse attorneys Mark Richards and Corey Chirafisi pointed to an exception in the law that they said allows minors to possess shotguns and rifles as long as they’re not short-barreled.
Assistant District Attorney James Kraus argued that the exception renders the state’s prohibition on minors possessing dangerous weapons meaningless. But when he acknowledged that Rittenhouse’s rifle’s barrel was longer than 16 inches, the minimum barrel length allowed under state law, Schroeder dismissed the charge.
To Kenosha-based defense attorney Michael Cicchini, the statute clearly requires a weapon to be short-barreled to apply, and the judge made the right call.
"There doesn’t seem to be much ambiguity here," he said. "(The charge) should have been dismissed earlier."
The current wording of the overarching law seems clear: "Any person under 18 years of age who possesses or goes armed with a dangerous weapon is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor." A lead-in paragraph defines dangerous weapon as several things, including "any firearm, loaded or unloaded."
The subsection that defense attorneys relied upon to seek dismissal reads: "This section applies only to a person under 18 years of age who possesses or is armed with a rifle or a shotgun if the person is in violation of s. 941.28 ..." That section of law isn’t specific to minors, but rather forbids any person from having a short-barreled shotgun or rifle.
"We knew from the beginning, that if you read that statute correctly, he was legal in having that firearm," Richards said Friday after Rittenhouse was cleared of the remaining charges.
Kyle Rittenhouse trial verdict reaction
Rittenhouse's mother, sitting several feet away from him on a courtroom bench, gasped in delight and began crying as the clerk read out the string of five not-guilty verdicts. She hugged others around her.
The verdict received mixed reactions by viewers and politicians.
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is Black and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, denounced the outcome.
"Over the last few weeks, many dreaded the outcome we just witnessed," Barnes said. "The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is what we should expect from our judicial system, but that standard is not always applied equally. We have seen so many black and brown youth killed, only to be put on trial posthumously, while the innocence of Kyle Rittenhouse was virtually demanded by the judge."
Political figures on the right, meanwhile, welcomed the verdict and condemned the case brought against Rittenhouse.
"All of us who knew what actually happened in Kenosha last year assumed this would be the verdict," tweeted Republican former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. "Thankfully, the jury thought the same."
As the outcome drew near, Gov. Tony Evers pleaded for calm and said 500 National Guard members would be ready for duty in Kenosha if needed.
After the verdict, Huber's parents, Karen Bloom and John Huber, said the outcome "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."
This story was reported from Los Angeles. The Associated Press contributed.