By BERNARD CONDON Associated Press
According to Kyle Rittenhouse’s attorneys, he wasn’t just a frightened teenager acting in self-defense when he shot dead two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He was a brave defender of freedom, a patriot exercising his right to bear arms in the midst of riots in the streets.
“A 17-year-old citizen is sacrificed by politicians, but it’s not Kyle Rittenhouse they’re looking for. Their ultimate goal is to strip the constitutional right of all citizens to defend our communities, ”said the voiceover at the end of a video released this week by a group linked to Rittenhouse’s legal team.
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“Kyle Rittenhouse will go down in American history alongside that brave unknown patriot … who fired ‘The Shot Heard Round the World’,” senior lawyer John Pierce wrote this month in a tweet he then followed. deleted. “A second American revolution against tyranny has begun.”
But such dramatic rhetoric that raised nearly $ 2 million for Rittenhouse’s defense may not work with a jury considering charges that could put the teenager in prison for life. Legal experts say there could be great risks in turning a fairly straightforward self-defense case into a fight for freedom that reflects the theme of law and order re-election President Donald Trump has struck. amidst a wave of protests against racial injustice.
“They play with his most negative characteristics and stereotypes, which his critics want to see him as – a militia member mad to do harm and start a revolution,” said Robert Barnes, a prominent Los Angeles defense lawyer. Angeles.
Rittenhouse’s high profile advocacy and fundraising teams, led by Pierce and Atlanta attorney Lin Wood respectively, declined to speak to The Associated Press about their strategy before the teenager’s next appearance on Friday. , a hearing in Illinois on whether to send him back to Wisconsin.
But in a TV appearance and storm of social media posts, they dubbed 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 holy ground of Kenosha where a 17 year old became a Minuteman and said, ‘Not in my care,'” Pierce tweeted above a photo of the town where rioters burned and looted some days before.
Eric Creizman, a former partner at Pierce’s company, said the fiery language in the tweets was unsurprising due to his former boss’s tendency to hyperbole, though he wonders if that will backfire. him.
“The question should really focus on whether this guy is guilty of what they accuse him of,” he said, “instead of making it a political issue.”
Pierce’s promise to fight a misdemeanor firearms possession charge by arguing that US law allows “unorganized militia” is a politically charged tactic of attack. Rittenhouse carried a semi-automatic rifle.
Some pundits have even questioned whether the teenager’s team of four lawyers would feel compelled not to negotiate a plea for fear of disrupting the patriotic narrative and disappointing donors.
There is a temptation to shape the courts’ arguments to “keep the money flowing as the battle continues,” said Richard Cayo, a Milwaukee lawyer who assists other lawyers in ethics cases. “It puts lawyers at risk of trying to serve two masters.”
Pierce and Wood both have ties to Trump’s orbit and his brand of GOP politics, though it’s not clear if this played a role in their involvement in Rittenhouse’s case and how it’s being handled. For his part, Trump has made statements appearing to support Rittenhouse’s self-defense claim, saying the young man “would likely have been killed.”
Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani hired Pierce’s firm late last year when he was reportedly investigated for possibly breaking lobbying laws for his work in Ukraine for the president, as do Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, former Trump advisers involved in the Russia investigation.
Wood, a defamation attorney who represented falsely accused security officer Richard Jewell in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Park bombing, is also a lawyer for Sean Hannity, the Fox News host with connections close with Trump.
And Wood recently made headlines by portraying Nicholas Sandmann, the Kentucky teenager wearing the “Make America Great Again” hat, in his lawsuits against news agencies for their coverage of his meeting with a Native American protester in Washington. ‘last year.
Both attorneys reacted quickly after Rittenhouse’s arrest in his hometown of Antioch, Ill., Two days after the August 25 shooting that took place amid loud protests in Kenosha over the police shooting. who crippled a black man, Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse, who is white, has been charged with intentional first degree homicide in the murder of two white protesters and attempted intentional homicide by injuring a third.
Pierce flew to Illinois to meet Rittenhouse and his family the same day, according to his tweets, which included appeals for donations to the #FightBack Foundation which was set up with Wood weeks earlier to fund lawsuits aimed at the “lies” of the “radical left.”
In Pierce’s account of an appearance on Fox News and in an 11-minute documentary about the #FightBack Foundation, the real Rittenhouse isn’t the crazy-eyed vigilante vigilante critics have painted him. Rather, he is described as a model citizen who had just left his lifeguard shift and was cleaning up graffiti from a vandalized high school before receiving a note from a business owner seeking help to protect what was left of his property after rioters burnt down 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 for Pierce, the situation was much more dire. Rosenbaum was at the head of a “mob that had become enraged” at the sight of Rittenhouse trying to put out a fire started by arsonists and decided to pursue him, “relentlessly hunting him for prey.” Rittenhouse, according to Pierce’s account, only fired after Rosenbaum began to “assault him from behind” and attempted to take his rifle.
“I just killed someone,” Rittenhouse says into his cell phone, according to the prosecution complaint, as he starts running and several people are chasing him. “Beat him!” said one person in the crowd. Another shouts: “Catch him! Get this guy!
What happened next, as Pierce said in a statement, was a series of clear signs captured on cellphone video that Rittenhouse was in mortal danger.
A man hits Rittenhouse as he runs down the street, pursued by several people who try to stop him. Rittenhouse falls to the ground and another protester hits him. Back on his feet and a little further down the street, he was hit by a skateboard. He fires, killing the man with the skateboard, Anthony Huber, 26, and injuring a third person holding a handgun, Gaige Grosskreutz, 26.
Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, said he would not be surprised if the patriotic language that wooed online donors was ultimately dropped in favor of the more obvious defense, namely that “Rittenhouse was a confused child who stuck out his head. “
Yet, says Turley, those who give the most tend to gravitate to the extremes of the political spectrum.
“There is a risk that social media campaigns will change your narrative,” he said.
Condon reported from New York.