KENOSHA, Wis. - The way lawyers for Kyle Rittenhouse tell it, he wasn't just a scared teenager acting in self-defense when he shot to death two Kenosha, Wisconsin, protesters. He was a courageous defender of liberty, a patriot exercising his right to bear arms amid rioting in the streets.
“A 17-year-old citizen is being sacrificed by politicians, but it’s not Kyle Rittenhouse they are after. Their end game is to strip away the constitutional right of all citizens to defend our communities,” says the voice-over at the end of a video released this week by a group tied to Rittenhouse’s legal team.
“Kyle Rittenhouse will go down in American history alongside that brave unknown patriot ... who fired ‘The Shot Heard Round the World,’’’ lead attorney John Pierce wrote this month in a tweet he later deleted. “A Second American Revolution against Tyranny has begun.”
But such dramatic rhetoric that has helped raise nearly $2 million for Rittenhouse’s defense may not work with a jury considering charges that could put the teen in prison for life. Legal experts say there could be big risks in turning a fairly straightforward self-defense case into a fight for freedom that mirrors the law-and-order reelection theme President Donald Trump has struck amid a wave of protests over racial injustice.
“They’re playing to his most negative characteristics and stereotypes, what his critics want to perceive him as — a crazy militia member out to cause harm and start a revolution,” said Robert Barnes, a prominent Los Angeles defense attorney.
Rittenhouse’s high-profile defense and fund-raising teams, led by Los Angeles-based Pierce and Atlanta attorney Lin Wood, respectively, refused to speak to The Associated Press about their strategy ahead of the teen’s next court appearance Friday, a hearing in Illinois on whether to return him to Wisconsin.
Kenosha shooting suspect
But in a TV appearance and a blizzard of social media posts, they doubled down on the hero theme, describing Kenosha as a “war zone” and the young shooter as an “American patriot” and a “shining symbol of the American fighting spirit.”
“This is the sacred ground in Kenosha where a 17-year old child became a Minuteman and said 'Not on My Watch,'” Pierce tweeted above a photo of the city where rioters burned and looted just days before.
Eric Creizman, a former partner at Pierce’s firm, said the heated language in the tweets is not surprising because of his former boss' tendency toward hyperbole, though he wonders if it will backfire.
“The question really should focus on whether this guy is guilty of what they’re charging him with,” he said, “instead of making it into a political issue.”
Kyle Rittenhouse, 17, charged with homicide in fatal shooting of two Kenosha protesters
One politically charged tactic critics have attacked as a longshot is Pierce’s promise to fight a charge of underage firearm possession, a misdemeanor, by arguing U.S. law allows for an “unorganized militia.” Rittenhouse wielded a semi-automatic rifle.
Some experts have even questioned whether the teenager’s team of four attorneys will feel pressure to hold back from making a plea bargain out of fear of disrupting the patriotic narrative and disappointing donors.
There is a temptation to shape court arguments to “keep the money flowing while the battle is ongoing,” said Richard Cayo, a Milwaukee attorney who helps other lawyers in ethics cases. “It puts lawyers at risk of trying to serve two masters.”
Both Pierce and Wood have ties to Trump’s orbit and his brand of GOP politics, though it’s not clear if that played any role in their involvement in Rittenhouse’s case and how it is being handled. For his part, Trump has made statements appearing to support Rittenhouse's claim of self-defense, saying the young man “probably would have been killed.”
Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani hired Pierce’s firm late last year when he was reportedly under investigation for possibly breaking lobbying laws for his work in Ukraine for the president, as did Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, former Trump advisers caught up in the Russia investigation.
Wood, a defamation lawyer who represented falsely accused security guard Richard Jewell in the 1996 Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta, is also a lawyer for Sean Hannity, the Fox News host with close ties to Trump.
And Wood made headlines recently representing Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky teen in the “Make America Great Again” hat, in his lawsuits against news organizations over their coverage of his encounter with an American Indian protester in Washington last year.
Officer Rusten Sheskey, Jacob Blake
Both attorneys moved quickly after Rittenhouse was arrested in his hometown of Antioch, Illinois, two days after the Aug. 25 shootings that came amid raucous protests in Kenosha over the police shooting that paralyzed a Black man, Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse, who is white, was charged with first-degree intentional homicide in the killing of two white protesters and attempted intentional homicide in the wounding of a third.
Pierce flew to Illinois to meet Rittenhouse and his family that same day, according to his tweets, which included appeals for donations to the #FightBack Foundation that was started with Wood a few weeks earlier to fund lawsuits aimed at the “lies” of the “radical left.”
In Pierce’s telling on a Fox News appearance and an 11-minute #FightBack Foundation documentary, the real Rittenhouse is not the wild-eyed vigilante critics have painted him. He is instead portrayed as a model citizen who had just gotten off his shift as lifeguard and was cleaning graffiti from a vandalized high school before he received word from a business owner seeking help to protect what was left of his property after rioters had burned two of his other buildings.
According to prosecutors, Rittenhouse shot and killed Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, after the protester threw a plastic bag at the teenager, missing him.
But to Pierce, the situation was far more dire. Rosenbaum was the head of a “mob that had become enraged” at the sight of Rittenhouse trying to put out a fire set by arsonists and decided to chase after him, “relentlessly hunting him as prey.” Rittenhouse, in Pierce's telling, fired only after Rosenbaum began to “assault him from behind” and attempted to take his rifle away.
“I just killed somebody,” Rittenhouse says into his cellphone, according to the complaint filed by prosecutors, as he starts running and several people give chase. “Beat him up!” one person in the crowd says. Another yells, “Get him! Get that dude!”
What happened next, as Pierce put it in a statement, were a series of clear signs captured on cellphone video that Rittenhouse was in possible mortal danger.
A man strikes Rittenhouse as he runs down the street, chased by several people trying to stop him. Rittenhouse falls to the ground and another protester kicks him. Back on his feet and a bit farther down the street, he is struck by a skateboard. He shoots, killing the man with the skateboard, Anthony Huber, 26, and wounding a third person holding a handgun, Gaige Grosskreutz, 26.
George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley said he wouldn’t be surprised if the patriotic language that has wooed online donors were eventually abandoned for the most obvious defense, that “Rittenhouse was a confused kid who got in over his head.”
Still, Turley said, those who give the most tend to gravitate to the extremes of the political spectrum.
“There is danger that social media campaigns can alter your narrative," he said.