In the run-up to Kyle Rittenhouse’s murder trial, legal experts cautioned that no matter which way the verdict fell, larger political conclusions should not be drawn from the case.
But in a highly-politicized and polarized America, that’s exactly what transpired after Rittenhouse was found not guilty on all counts Friday afternoon.
Elected leaders and pundits on the right declared the verdict a victory for gun rights and the use of self-defense and a defeat for media entities they argued had unfairly smeared Rittenhouse.
“God Bless America!” U.S. Rep. Mary Miller, a Republican from central Illinois, tweeted moments after the verdict. “Never surrender your Second Amendment right to defend yourself and your family.”
Many on the left decried the verdict as a travesty that allowed a white teenager toting an AR-15-style rifle to walk free after killing two demonstrators and wounding a third amid the chaotic fallout of the Kenosha police shooting of Jacob Blake. Some progressives doubted the same verdict would have been afforded to a defendant of color.
“In Black and Latino communities, we have long known that there’s a different set of rules for white Americans,” Democratic U.S. Rep. Jesus “Chuy” Garcia said in a statement. “The Kyle Rittenhouse verdict is further proof. Our justice system is broken.”
U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush called the verdict “a horrible decision and a miscarriage of justice.”
“It sends a horrible message to those who are exercising their First Amendment rights,” said Rush, a Democrat whose district is centered on Chicago’s South Side. “It is clear that the decks were stacked against the truth in this case. But I remain fully persuaded that truth will ultimately prevail.”
In a statement, President Joe Biden said “the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included.” Still, Biden said, “We must acknowledge that the jury has spoken.”
By contrast, former Republican President Donald Trump issued a celebratory statement Friday evening.
“Congratulations to Kyle Rittenhouse for being found INNOCENT of all charges,” Trump said. “It’s called being found NOT GUILTY — And by the way, if that’s not self-defense, nothing is!”
Before the trial began, John Gross, director of the Public Defender Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School, said that in such high-profile cases politicians, pundits and the public often “try to hold up criminal cases as a symbol of something.”
Gross said sometimes that’s the case, as when the conviction of Harvey Weinstein came to symbolize the #MeToo movement. But he cautioned the Rittenhouse case was not that type of trial.
“I try to remind people that what’s on trial in a criminal case isn’t a political viewpoint. It’s not movement. It’s not our history. It’s not our future,” Gross said. “What’s on trial? A criminal case is a person and that person’s specific actions to the extent that people want to extrapolate meaning from a particular verdict.”
“Often times criminal cases don’t lend themselves to being some referendum on a particular movement or viewpoint,” he said. “And this is one of those cases that I don’t think is necessarily transferable.”
In speaking to reporters after the trial, Rittenhouse’s attorney Mark Richards agreed larger conclusions shouldn’t be drawn from the verdict.
“I don’t think it’s that kind of case,” Richards said. “Is it ever going to happen again? Is there ever going to be a total unrest in Kenosha or some other city and that’s going to happen? I just don’t see that. It was a case of self-defense, the right to protect one’s self. … I don’t know that there’s any broader implications. I don’t want to make it bigger than it is.”
The stream of political consciousness on social media and on cable news networks, however, made clear many felt otherwise.
“You know damn well that if Kyle Rittenhouse were Black he would have been found guilty in a heartbeat — or shot dead by cops on the scene,” tweeted former Democratic presidential candidate Julian Castro.
Tulsi Gabbard, who also ran for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, had a different take.
“The jury got it right — finding Rittenhouse not guilty on all charges,” wrote Gabbard, a former congresswoman from Hawaii. “The fact that charges were brought before any serious investigation is evidence that the government was motivated by politics, which itself should be considered criminal.”
In a statement, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot offered her condolences to the families of those who were shot by Rittenhouse and said “under our constitutional system, we must respect the jury’s decision.”
“However, no one should ever take the law into their own hands, or attempt to make themselves the judge, jury and executioner,” Lightfoot said. “What Kyle Rittenhouse did was reckless, dangerous, and showed an utter disregard for human life.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois said she was “astonished and deeply troubled” that Rittenhouse was acquitted. She said there “needs to be an investigation on how someone could actually go into a crowd of people brandishing a gun as people were exercising their First Amendment rights and kill two of those people and get away with it.”
“I’m incredibly disappointed by the verdict,” Duckworth said in an interview. “I understand why so many Americans are frustrated by it, because I am one.”
Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker said in a statement that the two men killed by Rittenhouse, Anthony Huber and Joseph Rosenbaum, “deserved to be alive today. They deserve justice.”
“Carrying a loaded gun into a community 20 miles from your home and shooting unarmed citizens is fundamentally wrong. It’s a tragedy that the court could not acknowledge that basic fact,” Pritzker said. “We must do better than this.”
Before the trial began, it was widely known Rittenhouse benefited from fundraising tied to far-right interests that tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election, and that he flashed a hand sign appropriated by white supremacist groups while wearing a “Free as F — k” T-shirt and drinking in a Wisconsin bar following his arrest.
Prosecutors said they had evidence Rittenhouse met for lunch after a hearing earlier this year with several high-ranking members of the Proud Boys, a far-right group known for street fights that the Anti-Defamation League characterizes as “misogynistic, Islamophobic, transphobic and anti-immigration,” with some members espousing “white supremacist and antisemitic ideologies.”
The judge overseeing Rittenhouse’s case, Bruce Schroeder, barred discussion of that evidence, ruling it would impede on Rittenhouse’s right to a fair trial.
In Chicago, as some vented their frustration, they zeroed in on how Rittenhouse’s case became a rallying cry for the far right.
“It’s not whether I wanted guilt or not, it’s that so many people will never be afforded the opportunities given to someone who killed people, bragged about it, and became a national white supremacist hero,” said Illinois state Sen. Robert Peters, a progressive Democrat who represents a district anchored in Hyde Park. “This is a perfect example of how f—–d our criminal legal system is.”
Ald. Rossanna Rodriguez-Sanchez, a Democratic socialist member of the Chicago City Council, said “this whole trial has been a sham.”
“Prison wouldn’t have made it better, but there’s absolutely no accountability required from this kid,” Rodriguez-Sanchez tweeted. “Another pass for white supremacist violence against our communities and allies. Sending love and solidarity to everyone fighting white supremacy.”
On the right, Republicans railed against Biden for suggesting on social media and in a campaign ad that Rittenhouse was a white supremacist.
“Joe Biden needs to publicly apologize to Kyle Rittenhouse,” Republican U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas tweeted.
Rittenhouse’s actions were thrust into a hotly contested presidential campaign last year between Biden and then-President Trump, with both visiting Kenosha in the days following the shooting of Blake and the deaths of the protesters.
Biden’s campaign featured a photo of Rittenhouse in an ad that criticized Trump for refusing to condemn white supremacists. Trump defended Rittenhouse’s actions, saying the teen had acted in self-defense as protesters “violently attacked him” and suggested the teen was “in very big trouble” and “probably would have been killed” during the confrontation.
The case became so politicized, in fact, that Judge Schroeder instructed jurors to disregard comments made by Trump and Biden. Richards, Rittenhouse’s attorney, joked that the case was the first he tried that two presidents of the United States commented on “and both of them had such different beliefs.”
“President Biden said some things that are so incorrect and so untrue. He’s not a white supremacist,” Richards said of Rittenhouse.
At the White House Friday, Biden declined to directly answer a question about whether he stood by past comments equating Rittenhouse with white supremacy. The president told reporters he had just learned about the verdict.
“I stand by what the jury has to say,” Biden said. “The jury system works.”
Like many Republicans nationally, Illinois state Rep. Darren Bailey, who is running for governor, took the verdict as reason to rail against the media, suggesting Rittenhouse should sue.
“Rittenhouse court case: not guilty. Rittenhouse lawsuit against the media: pending,” tweeted Bailey, of downstate Xenia. “Don’t let the mainstream media fool you into thinking helping others or defending yourself is wrong. He will likely make millions suing the media over this one.”
On Capitol Hill, the far right of the Republican Party celebrated. U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Glock-packing politician prone to conspiracy theories who owns a Colorado restaurant named Shooters Grill, declared, “Today is a great day for the Second Amendment and the right to self-defense. Kyle Rittenhouse is not guilty on all counts! Glory to God!”
Miller, the central Illinois congresswoman who apologized earlier this year for referencing Adolf Hitler in a speech, also participated in the social media victory lap.
“Justice has prevailed for Kyle Rittenhouse. In America, we have trial by jury. Not by the media. Not by Hollywood celebrities. And definitely not by liberal blue checkmarks on Twitter,” Miller wrote. “Americans have a Second Amendment right to self-defense, and we will never surrender it.”
As is often the case recently, Republican U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger struck a different tone than most of his GOP colleagues. Instead of celebrating the verdict as a win for the Second Amendment, the outgoing congressman chose to focus on the defendant.
“Now is a good time for Kyle Rittenhouse to turn his life around,” Kinzinger tweeted. “I would certainly hope he does not become a prop for those who would like to abuse him for political gain then throw him out. I believe in redemption.”
Richards told reporters after the trial that he never wanted Rittenhouse’s trial to become some celebrated case of the political right. The defense attorney said that’s what Rittenhouse’s initial lawyers, high-profile conservatives Lin Wood and John Pierce, wanted.
“When I took this case, I was hired by the first two lawyers. … They wanted to use Kyle for a cause, and that’s something I think was inappropriate. I don’t represent causes. I represent clients,” Richards said. “The only thing that ended up mattering to me is whether he’s found not guilty.”
Chicago Tribune’s John Byrne, Gregory Pratt, Rick Pearson, Dan Petrella and Stacy St. Clair contributed.