Shooter’s defense portrays him as ‘American patriot’
Lawyers for Kyle Rittenhouse
say that he wasn’t just a scared teenager acting in self-defense when he shot to death two Kenosha,
Wis., 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 SecondAmericanRevolution against Tyranny has begun.”
But such rhetoric that has helped raise nearly $2 million for Rittenhouse’s defense may not work with the 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 selfdefense case into a fight for freedom that mirrors the law-and-order reelection theme President Donald Trump has struck amid thewave 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.
ittenhouse’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 on the schedule Thursday for the next day, a hearing in Illinois on whether to return
him to Wisconsin.
In a TV appearance and a blizzard of social media posts, they doubled down on the hero theme, describingKenosha 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’s 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.”
One politically charged tactic critics have attacked as a longshot is Pierce’s promise to fight a charge of underage firearmpossession,
a misdemeanor, by arguing U.S. law allows for an “unorganized militia.” Rittenhouse had 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.”
Pierce and Wood have ties to Trump’s orbit and his brand of GOP politics, though it is not clear if that played any role in their involvement in Rittenhouse’s case and how it is being handled. Trump has made statements appearing to support Rittenhouse’s claim of self-defense, saying the youngman “probablywould have been killed.”
Kyle Rittenhouse carries a weapon as he walks Aug. 25 in Kenosha, Wis., during the night of unrest following the weekend police shooting of Jacob Blake.