An Illinois teenager who fatally shot two people and wounded a third amid summer protests on the streets of Kenosha, Wis., pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to charges including intentional homicide.
Kyle Rittenhouse, 18, entered his plea in a brief hearing conducted by teleconference.
Prosecutors say Rittenhouse, who is white, left his home in Antioch, Ill., and travelled to Kenosha after learning of a call to protect businesses in the wake of the Aug. 23 police shooting of Jacob Blake.
Blake, a Black man, was shot seven times in the back and left paralyzed.
Hours after the plea, a Wisconsin prosecutor announced he will not file criminal charges against the white police officer who shot Blake.
WATCH | The final moments before Jacob Blake is shot:
Officer Rusten Sheskey’s shooting of Blake, captured on bystander video, turned the nation’s spotlight on Wisconsin during a summer marked by protests over police brutality and racism. More than 250 people were arrested in the days that followed, including Rittenhouse.
Kenosha County District Attorney Michael Graveley said Tuesday that he had informed Blake of the news before holding a news conference to announce his decision.
Ben Crump, an attorney for Blake’s family, expressed disappointment with the decision, saying it “further destroys trust in our justice system” and sends a message that it is OK for police to abuse their power. He said he will continue to move forward with a lawsuit and fight for systemic change in policing.
“We feel this decision failed not only Jacob and his family, but the community that protested and demanded justice,” Crump and his co-counsel said in a statement, adding: “We urge Americans to continue to raise their voices and demand change in peaceful and positive ways during this emotional time.”
Bracing for unrest
The city of Kenosha is bracing for unrest in light of the prosecutor’s news.
Sheskey, 31, has been the subject of five internal investigations since he joined the Kenosha department in 2013, including three reprimands for crashing his squad car three times over three years. He has also earned 16 awards, letters or formal commendations, his personnel file shows.
The police union has maintained Blake resisted arrest and was armed with a knife, although state investigators have said only that a knife was found on the floor of his vehicle. Blake had leaned into the SUV, after being tasered, during his confrontation with police and was shot.
Blake’s three children were in the back seat of the SUV.
The state department of justice investigated the shooting under a state law that requires outside agencies to investigate all officer-involved incidents. The department asked former Madison police chief Noble Wray, who is Black, to review its findings after Graveley asked for an outside expert to review the investigation.
Rittenhouse was among the armed people who took to Kenosha streets during the violence. He opened fire with an assault-style rifle during protests two nights after Blake’s shooting, killing Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz. Rittenhouse has argued he fired in self-defence.
Conservatives have rallied around Rittenhouse, describing him as a patriot who took up arms to protect people and property. His supporters have raised enough money to make his $2 million US cash bail.
Others see him as a domestic terrorist whose presence with a rifle incited protesters. Rittenhouse was 17 at the time of the shootings.
A pretrial conference for Rittenhouse was set for March 10, with a March 29 trial date, though his lawyer Mark Richards indicated he would seek to delay that to allow more time to prepare.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers activated 500 National Guard troops to help Kenosha authorities deal with any potential protests on Tuesday.
“Our members of the National Guard will be on hand to support local first responders, ensure Kenoshans are able to assemble safely, and to protect critical infrastructure as necessary,” Evers said in a statement.
Blake’s father led a march through the city Monday evening, calling on people to “make noise” and be “heard around the world.”
“[Sheskey] tried to kill my son and could have killed my grandchildren,” Jacob Blake Sr. said during a news conference before the march. “He shot him seven times in his back unjustifiably.”
Blake’s shooting happened three months after George Floyd died while being restrained by police officers in Minneapolis, which also was captured on bystander video and which sparked outrage and protests that spread across the United States and beyond.
The galvanized Black Lives Matter movement put a spotlight on inequitable policing and became a fault line in politics, with U.S. President Donald Trump criticizing protesters and aggressively pressing a law-and-order message that he sought to capitalize on in Wisconsin and other swing states.