Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of all charges Friday 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.
Rittenhouse, 18, began to choke up, fell forward toward the defense table and then hugged one of his attorneys as he heard a court clerk recite "not guilty" five times. A sheriff's deputy immediately whisked him out a back door.
"He wants to get on with his life," defense attorney Mark Richards said. "He has a huge sense of relief for what the jury did to him today. He wishes none of this ever happened. But as he said when he testified, he did not start this."
The verdict in the politically combustible case was met with anger and disappointment from those who saw Rittenhouse as a vigilante and a wannabe cop, and relief and vindication from those who regarded him as a patriot who wanted to stop lawlessness and exercised his Second Amendment right to carry a gun and to defend himself.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, the longtime civil rights leader, said the verdict throws into doubt the safety of people who protest in support of Black Americans.
"It seems to me that it's open season on human rights demonstrators," he said.
Rittenhouse 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.
The 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, whose racial makeup was not disclosed by the court but appeared to be overwhelmingly white, deliberated for nearly 3½ days.
President Joe Biden called for calm, saying that while the outcome of the case "will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken."
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 more than 60 years behind bars.
Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley said his office respects the jury's decision, and he asked the public to "accept the verdicts peacefully and not resort to violence."
Ahead of the verdict, Democratic Governor Tony Evers announced last week that 500 National Guard members stood ready in case of trouble after the verdict.
As he dismissed the jurors, Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder assured them the court would take "every measure" to keep them safe.
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is Black and a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, denounced the outcome. He, like many civil rights activists, saw a racial double standard at work in the case.
"Over the last few weeks, many dreaded the outcome we just witnessed," Barnes said. "The presumption of innocence until proven guilty is what we should expect from our judicial system, but that standard is not always applied equally. We have seen so many Black and brown youth killed, only to be put on trial posthumously, while the innocence of Kyle Rittenhouse was virtually demanded by the judge."
Political figures on the right, meanwhile, welcomed the verdict and condemned the case brought against Rittenhouse.
"All of us who knew what actually happened in Kenosha last year assumed this would be the verdict," tweeted Republican former Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. "Thankfully, the jury thought the same."
The case was part of an extraordinary confluence of trials that reflected the deep divide over race in the United States: In Georgia, three white men are on trial in the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, while in Virginia, a trial is underway in a lawsuit over the deadly white-supremacist rally held in Charlottesville in 2017.
The bloodshed in Kenosha took place during a summer of sometimes-violent protests set off across the U.S. by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and other cases involving the police use of force against Black people.
Richards, the defense attorney, said Rittenhouse wants to be a nurse and is in counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder and will probably move away because "it's too dangerous" for him to continue to live in the area.