Kyle Rittenhouse’s testifying in his own defense during his trial was a pivotal moment towards his eventual acquittal, something many criminal defendants would not have the privilege of doing, said the Vera Institute of Justice’s Insha Rahman.
Criminal defendants are not required to testify in their own defense but when they do, prosecutors are allowed to raise past trouble with the law, even if its very minor, to attack their credibility.
“It’s a huge discouragement from taking the stand when you know that if you live a community where police presence means most people have been stopped and frisked or arrested for something–even something minor or tiny that has nothing to do with the charges in front of the jury” at the time, said Rahman.
“It’s a huge privilege that Kyle Rittenhouse had in this case and its one that he and his defense attorneys worked and obviously resulted in their favor.”
Rahman points to Rittenhouse’s testimony as the moment when jurors were likely convinced of his claims of self-defense. In most cases where a defendant does not testify, the prosecution typically set the narrative of a case.
“When Kyle Rittenhouse took the stand himself, he actually got to paint a story about self defense that was so different than what had come out through the prosecution,” said Rahman. “It’s incredibly rare that the accused actually gets to be seen as a full person in the way that Kyle Rittenhouse was.” Rahman spoke with PBS NewsHour’s Nicole Ellis right after the verdict on Nov. 19.
Rittenhouse was acquitted of all five charges against him after pleading self-defense in the deadly Kenosha shootings that became a flashpoint in the debate over guns, vigilantism and racial injustice in the U.S.
He was charged with homicide, attempted homicide and reckless endangering for killing two men and wounding a third with an AR-style semi-automatic rifle in the summer of 2020 during a tumultuous night of protests over the shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, by a white Kenosha police officer.
Rittenhouse, a former police youth cadet, said he went to Kenosha to protect property from rioters. He is white, as were those he shot.
The anonymous jury, which appeared to be overwhelmingly white, deliberated for close to three and a half days.
Rittenhouse could have gotten life in prison if found guilty on the most serious charge, first-degree intentional homicide, or what some other states call first-degree murder. Two other charges each carried over 60 years behind bars.
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