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Jury selection for Kyle Rittenhouse trial starts this week

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Tomorrow, the latest high-profile trial involving matters of policing and racial justice gets underway with jury selection in Kenosha, Wis. The defendant is Kyle Rittenhouse. In August of 2020, he traveled from his home in Illinois to Kenosha during the days of unrest that followed the police shooting of a Black man there. Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time, went on to shoot three people, two of them fatally. NPR's Cheryl Corley is with us now to tell us more about the case. Cheryl, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Oh, of course.

MARTIN: So the common factor in many of these cases and trials that have prompted massive protests is that it's a Black individual killed during an encounter with police. And the Rittenhouse case has some elements of that, but it's different. So could you just walk us through how?

CORLEY: Well, in this instance, all the people involved are civilians. They are also all white. That's Rittenhouse and the three individuals who were shot. However, the incident stems back to this protest that erupted in August of 2020, as you mentioned, after a Kenosha police officer shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake, a Black man, several times in the back. And there was just plenty of outrage about that. Some demonstrations were peaceful. There were also violent protests, and Kenosha and really became this racial tinderbox. There were fires set that destroyed vehicles. They damaged businesses. There was a really volatile mix of demonstrators and police on the street and armed white militia. And they came after a call went out on social media for people to come to Kenosha to protect local businesses.

MARTIN: So Kyle Rittenhouse was 17 when he showed up in Kenosha. He ended up killing two protesters and wounding another. A jury is eventually going to decide what happens in this case. But could you walk us through which charges he faces? And could you also tell us why his age is relevant here?

CORLEY: Well, first, I have to say that Rittenhouse has no known extremist affiliation. He has, however, become this kind of cause celeb on the right. Specifically, he's charged with five felonies, one misdemeanor and a curfew ticket. And those counts include charges of homicide and attempted homicide. He's also charged with unlawful possession of a weapon because he was not 18, and that serious charge could bring him life in prison.

So Rittenhouse was in Kenosha two days after the Blake shooting, armed with a semiautomatic assault-style rifle. In the chaos of that evening, he shot and killed 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum, 26-year-old Anthony Huber, and he wounded another protester, 27-year-old Gaige Grosskreutz. And while Rittenhouse claims it was self-defense and that he was protecting himself while others tried to attack him, prosecutors say Rittenhouse, who lived 15 miles away in Illinois, was what they called a chaos tourist and a vigilante who killed and wounded people.

MARTIN: I think people may remember that there was some bystander video of the protests, and there's also some bystander video of the shootings. And it's my understanding that prosecutors and defense attorneys have been arguing for months over which evidence will be allowed. And the judge also made some rulings about certain language that can be used that's been controversial. So could you walk us through that?

CORLEY: Yes. And, you know, some have even called for the judge to resign because of some of his earlier rulings. He is Judge Bruce Schrader, and he's been on the bench since the early 1980s and - 75 years old. And one of the more controversial rulings came last week when he said that the men killed and wounded in this case could not be called victims. He said that's a loaded word that could prejudice the jury, and it's a word that he routinely bans unless someone has actually been convicted of a crime against the person. The judge also ruled that the men who were killed and wounded could be called rioters, looters and arsonists if the evidence supports that, and that angered activists and others who called that a double standard.

MARTIN: Cheryl, before we let you go, is there a chance that Rittenhouse will testify?

CORLEY: Maybe. Typically, defense lawyers don't put their clients on the stand, but some attorneys say conditions are different when it comes to self-defense, that if a defendant says they feared for their life, jurors typically want to hear from that individual about what they were thinking when they pulled the trigger.

MARTIN: That is NPR criminal justice reporter Cheryl Corley. Cheryl, thank you so much.

CORLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.