A Wisconsin jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse on Friday, siding with the teenager’s claims that he acted in self-defense during the chaotic night in Kenosha last summer that left two men shot dead and a third wounded.
The case quickly became a political flashpoint amid the 2020 presidential campaign and months of protests against police brutality and racial injustice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by then-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, argued he was acting in self-defense and was in town to protect property and administer first aid amid intense racial justice protests ignited by the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white police officer.
Rittenhouse cried, fell to the floor and then embraced one of his attorneys upon announcement of the jury’s verdict after more than three days of deliberations. Judge Bruce Schroeder, who himself garnered scrutiny during the trial at several points, thanked the jury at the conclusion of the verdict.
President Joe Biden, at the time the Democratic nominee, visited Blake and his family during a trip to the area last September just weeks after the incident left Blake paralyzed below the waist.
Biden’s visit came on the heels of then-President Donald Trump’s own tour of the city to survey the damage wrought during the protests that followed Blake’s shooting. Trump used the Kenosha visit to demonstrate his law-and-order image, traveling there despite objections from state and local officials in Wisconsin, who feared his presence would exacerbate tensions.
The former president also faced criticism for not meeting with Blake’s family, instead opting to spend time with members of law enforcement and local businesses.
Trump and other conservatives quickly came to defend Rittenhouse and his claims of self-defense, turning the teen into a totem of the ongoing culture war that has only compounded this year. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) even floated the idea of hiring Rittenhouse as a congressional intern.
“You know what, Kyle Rittenhouse would probably make a pretty good Congressional intern,” Gaetz said Wednesday in an interview on Newsmax. “We might reach out to him and see if he be interested in helping the country in additional ways.”
Friday’s verdict comes as Biden works to direct voters’ attention to his legislative agenda and as the president’s approval ratings sit at a low-point in his first year in the White House. Now Biden faces the prospect of wading into a volatile situation involving race, guns, policing and criminal justice.
Though Biden had previously commented on both the Rittenhouse and Blake shootings, the White House has said little while the trial was playing out for fear of influencing its outcome. The president told reporters Friday he accepts the trial verdict.
"I stand by what the jury has to say. The jury system works, and we have to abide by it.”
Later Friday afternoon, the White House released a statement from Biden furthering those comments, while acknowledging the verdict "will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, including me."
"I know that we’re not going to heal our country’s wounds overnight, but I remain steadfast in my commitment to do everything in my power to ensure that every American is treated equally, with fairness and dignity, under the law" Biden said.
The Congressional Black Caucus blasted the jury’s verdict as "unconscionable" shortly after it was announced.
"The ludicrous claim of self-defense is on par with the abhorrent behavior displayed by the prosecution and the judge," Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio), the chair of the CBC, said in a statement. "It is time for accountability. It is time for criminal justice reform, and it is beyond time for gun reform."
Democratic Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers has ordered about 500 National Guard members to be placed on standby around Kenosha ahead of the Rittenhouse verdict to assist local law enforcement if necessary. Evers on Friday urged demonstrators to protest the verdict without violence.
"We must have peace in Kenosha and our communities, and any efforts or actions aimed at sowing division are unwelcome in our state as they will only hinder that healing," he said in a statement.
"We must be unwavering in our promise to build a state where every kid, person, and family can live their life free of violence and have every chance to be successful."