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The question of self-defense is key in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial's opening arguments

Kyle Rittenhouse listens as jurors are asked questions by the judge during jury selection at the Kenosha County Courthouse on Nov. 1, 2021 in Kenosha, Wis. Rittenhouse shot three demonstrators, killing two of them, during a night of unrest that erupted in Kenosha after a police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back while police attempted to arrest him in August 2020.
Sean Krajacic
Pool/Getty Images
Kyle Rittenhouse listens as jurors are asked questions by the judge during jury selection at the Kenosha County Courthouse on Nov. 1, 2021 in Kenosha, Wis. Rittenhouse shot three demonstrators, killing two of them, during a night of unrest that erupted in Kenosha after a police officer shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back while police attempted to arrest him in August 2020.

Updated November 2, 2021 at 4:39 PM ET

Lawyers gave opening arguments and called the first witness in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who at 17 years old shot and killed two people at a protest last year in Kenosha, Wis.

The case has drawn national attention since practically the moment the shots were fired, as it touched on all the raw nerves of the summer of 2020 — police brutality, gun laws, peaceful and violent protests and, perhaps most of all, perceptions that law enforcement treats Black people and white people differently, with outrage over Kenosha police standing by as Rittenhouse walked away from the scene where he killed two and wounded a third.

Rittenhouse, now 18, faces seven charges, including two counts of homicide and one count of attempted homicide. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

In opening arguments Tuesday, lawyers took turns recounting the events of that chaotic night, both addressing the questions of whether Rittenhouse acted reasonably and whether he acted in self-defense in a series of chaotic encounters with demonstrators.

It began last August, when violent unrest exploded in Kenosha after a white police officer shot a Black man named Jacob Blake, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Thousands of demonstrators turned out to protest police brutality, and some destroyed police cars, damaged businesses and burned down several buildings.

On Aug. 25, the third night of protests, Rittenhouse, then 17, drove from his home in Illinois across the state line into Wisconsin, where he armed himself with an AR-15-style rifle loaded with 30 rounds.

There, Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, and injured Gaige Grosskreutz.

He faces felony charges of first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree intentional homicide, attempted first-degree intentional homicide and first-degree recklessly endangering safety, along with a pair of lesser charges for possessing a gun as a minor and failure to comply with curfew that night.

Prosecutors say Rittenhouse acted recklessly and unreasonably

Rittenhouse's lawyers argue that he acted in self-defense. But prosecutors on Tuesday painted him as the initial aggressor who chose to take actions far outside the norm, even for such a chaotic night.

"Like moths to a flame, tourists from outside our community were drawn to the chaos here in Kenosha. People from outside Kenosha came in and contributed to that chaos," said Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger in his opening statement. "The evidence will show that hundreds of people were out on the street experiencing chaos and violence, and the only person who killed anyone was the defendant, Kyle Rittenhouse."

Had Rittenhouse not acted as he did, Binger argued, Huber and Rosenbaum would still be alive.

Binger described the sequence of events leading up to the shootings in detail, saying Rittenhouse "initiated" a confrontation with Rosenbaum, the first person shot.

At a gas station near the center of the protests, Rosenbaum was acting "agitated," Binger said, "getting in people's faces" and "essentially daring people to respond," including others armed with weapons similar to the rifle carried by Rittenhouse.

It was only Rittenhouse, Binger said, who chose to confront Rosenbaum, pursuing him down the road toward a used car lot. Their interaction in the lot was captured only by infrared camera recorded from a law enforcement plane flying overhead, so there is no detailed video or audio evidence of the encounter.

But afterward, the infrared footage shows, Rosenbaum begins to run toward Rittenhouse, who then shot him in his lower body, Binger said. Rosenbaum fell, then Rittenhouse shot again, striking him in the back.

"The shot that killed Mr. Rosenbaum was a shot to the back. This occurred after the defendant chased down Mr. Rosenbaum and confronted him while wielding that AR-15," Binger said.

Rittenhouse's lawyers say he acted in self-defense

"We have two very different outlooks on the events of August 25th of 2020," said defense lawyer Mark Richards as he began his opening argument.

Rittenhouse had spent the morning of Aug. 25 with two friends cleaning up graffiti in downtown Kenosha, Richards said. That day, the trio spoke to the owners of Car Source, the used car business near downtown, and offered their "services" for protecting the lot.

He returned that night to a chaotic and dangerous situation filled with mortal peril, Richards argued, and his actions were justifiable self-defense from a "mob that wants to kill him."

"Ultimately, what this case will come down to — it isn't a whodunit or when-did-it-happen or anything like that. It is: Was Kyle Rittenhouse's actions privileged under the law of self-defense?" Richards told the jury.

Each person Rittenhouse encountered that night was dangerous and armed with a potentially deadly weapon, Richards said as he showed jurors a series of photographs. One photo showed Rosenbaum setting something on fire, while another showed two people Rosenbaum was with that night, one holding a gun and the other holding a heavy flashlight. A third image, a video still, showed Grosskreutz reaching into a backpack to pull out a gun, Richards said.

As he displayed a photo of Anthony Huber with his skateboard, Richards said that Huber would later swing the skateboard at Rittenhouse's head in an attempt "to separate the head from the body" — a statement Binger objected to, but the judge overruled.

"Kyle Rittenhouse protected himself, protected his firearm so it couldn't be taken and used against him or other people, from Mr. Rosenbaum who'd made threats to kill, and the other individuals who didn't see that shooting, attacked him in the street like an animal," Richards said.

During the opening arguments, Rittenhouse sat quietly, watching attentively. His mother and sister sat behind him.

The judge and the jury

Jury selection began Monday and took just one day.

Of the 150 or so potential jurors that had been called to the courthouse for selection, not one raised their hand when the judge asked if there was anyone in the pool who had not heard of the Rittenhouse case. Many were dismissed when they said they had already made up their minds.

The jury is composed of 11 women and 9 men.

In his instructions Tuesday, Judge Bruce Schroeder asked the jurors to avoid news coverage and talking with anybody about the case during the trial, which is expected to last two weeks.

Schroeder, 75, has served as a judge in Kenosha County for nearly 40 years. He is the longest-serving judge in the state. His decisions in the case have already drawn national attention — in particularhis move to bar prosecutors from referring to those Rittenhouse killed as "victims," while allowing defense lawyers to refer to them as "looters" and "arsonists."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: November 3, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Kyle Rittenhouse drove from Illinois into Wisconsin armed with an AR-15-style rifle. In fact, Rittenhouse stored the gun at a friend's home in Wisconsin and never possessed the gun in Illinois, according to prosecutors.
Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.