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Former prosecutor discusses how the Kyle Rittenhouse trial played out


We've been covering the verdict in the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, who shot and killed two people last year at a racial justice protest in Kenosha, Wis. Today, the jury acquitted Rittenhouse of all five charges. Joining me for analysis of that verdict is Charles Coleman Jr. He's a civil rights lawyer and a former prosecutor. Welcome.

CHARLES COLEMAN JR: Thanks for having me, so glad to talk to you all this evening.

KELLY: I know you have said you saw this coming, and I'm curious what specifically about the trial signaled to you this was how it would turn out.

COLEMAN: Well, there were a few things that I saw that, in my experience as a former prosecutor, definitely let me know that the tea leaves were leaning toward an acquittal. One of them was that the prosecution had a very difficult time establishing its own case through its own witnesses. Each of the witnesses that the prosecution put forward did something to help their case, but they also did something that was harmful to their case. And that was a huge negative in terms of them being able to establish their case and meet their burden beyond a reasonable doubt. But I also think the testimony of Kyle Rittenhouse on the stand was very effective for the defense in terms of establishing the self-defense claim that it wanted to assert in terms of his acquittal.

And when I watched the prosecutor go through a relatively ineffective, technically sound, but still nonetheless lengthy and kind of boring cross-examination, I really wondered what is it that the prosecution is going to be able to hold its hat on? And even despite pulling together what I thought was a very sound summation, I just didn't think that they were going to be able to do enough in order to convince this jury that they had met their burden. And so as this trial unfolded, there were many signs that I saw around why I didn't think we were going to see a conviction in this case.

KELLY: Stay with what you cited as effective testimony, which was Rittenhouse himself taking the stand. It's unusual for a teenager to go on the stand, but it appears to have worked to convince the jury that he acted in self-defense. Why? What do you think it was about it?

COLEMAN: Well, I think there were a couple of things about his testimony that, you know, when I saw the case, made me believe that it was going to be a good thing for him to get on the stand. The first of which was he was very well prepared. He was very well prepped. He did not come off as smug or indignant. He came off kind of sort of happy-go-lucky as a regular teenager. And I think that given what his age is and given the age that he had when he committed this - when he was accused of this crime, that needed to be something that the jury was reminded of. And his presentation on the stand did just that.

The second thing that I think made it effective for him to get on the stand is basically I have seen throughout the course of this trial in the media and the public how Rittenhouse was in many respects infantilized. He had the protection and privilege of being able to be seen as a 17-year-old young man in spaces that aren't necessarily as kind to other people of that age. I am a civil rights attorney, and so I will reference Trayvon Martin and how when George Zimmerman was on trial for killing Trayvon Martin, who was the same age as Kyle Rittenhouse at that time, he did not enjoy the same level of protection or shielding or infantilization as we saw from Rittenhouse in this trial. I can think of several other examples of this same phenomenon. So it's not just his age, but it's also his privilege.

KELLY: Do you think this was a fair trial?

COLEMAN: I think that it was more or less a fair trial. I don't think that there was anything about the trial that would be reversible. I think that the judge made some rulings that skewed toward the defendant but not to the extent that it altered the overall nature of the trial or gave the defendant some undue advantage that it wasn't supposed to have.

KELLY: Yeah. Just about 30 seconds or so left, sir, but I want to ask you about the possibility - possibility - that Rittenhouse could still be sued in a civil trial. What do you think is the likelihood? Mr. Coleman, are you still with us?

COLEMAN: Yes, I'm still with you.

KELLY: We lost you for a second.

COLEMAN: I'm sorry. Say that one more time.

KELLY: Possibility he'll be sued in civil court, civil trial.

COLEMAN: Oh, I doubt that very highly. I could see it happening, but I don't think that it's going to go anywhere or go very far. But at this point, only time will tell. I know that Mr. Rittenhouse is just happy to be a free man. And at this point, a civil case does not seem likely.

KELLY: Charles Coleman Jr., civil rights lawyer and former prosecutor, we appreciate your time.

COLEMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Ashish Valentine
Ashish Valentine joined NPR as its second-ever Reflect America fellow and is now a production assistant at All Things Considered. As well as producing the daily show and sometimes reporting stories himself, his job is to help the network's coverage better represent the perspectives of marginalized communities.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.