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Kyle Rittenhouse testified that he feared for his life the night he shot 3 people

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Kyle Rittenhouse took the stand in Kenosha, Wis., today. He offered testimony about the night he shot three people, two of them fatally, during protests in the summer of 2020. Rittenhouse is 18 years old, and he faces several felony charges related to the shooting, though he maintains he acted in self-defense. Wisconsin Public Radio's Corrinne Hess has been covering the case and joins us now. Welcome back.

CORRINNE HESS, BYLINE: Thank you.

CORNISH: This is the first time that Kyle Rittenhouse has spoken so extensively about his actions that night. Talk about what he had to say.

HESS: Well, his appearance on the witness stand was unexpected, and it seemed to take prosecutors by surprise, too. So defense attorneys have maintained self-defense, and this was really his moment to make his case in his own words. Mr. Rittenhouse described his background as sort of this intern with paramedics, law enforcement. He's a lifeguard. And his lawyers tried to paint a picture of this, like, earnest young man who loved community work and was forced to kill on the night of August 25.

CORNISH: On social media, there are images everywhere of him kind of breaking down on the stand. Can you actually tell us what happened, what led up to that moment and what was going on?

HESS: Yeah. So Mr. Rittenhouse was really composed for the most part, but then there was one point where he did break down. He talked about being taunted and chased by Joseph Rosenbaum, who was the first person who he shot and killed. And that's where he began to struggle.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KYLE RITTENHOUSE: There were (sobbing) - there were three people right there...

HESS: Yeah. He started, you know, he got really overwhelmed. And he started sobbing. And the judge had to call a recess for 10 minutes so he could compose himself again.

CORNISH: It's believed that much of this case will come down to whether or not the jury believes Rittenhouse that he acted in self-defense. How did the prosecutors approach this?

HESS: So Rittenhouse is still on the stand. And throughout the afternoon, through cross-examination, prosecutors have been trying to show that Mr. Rittenhouse's actions are contrary to somebody who was looking for help. They're talking a lot about Rittenhouse getting a gun beforehand even though he was not legally able to own it because he was only 17. They're talking about how he had this gun to protect himself. You know, they're just focused a lot on this gun.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THOMAS BINGER: Everybody that you shot at that night, you intended to kill. Correct?

RITTENHOUSE: I didn't intend to kill them. I intended to stop the people who were attacking me.

HESS: And this is kind of a theme throughout the prosecution's case that, you know, out of the thousands of people that were there that night, Kyle Rittenhouse was the only person who killed somebody.

CORNISH: Finally, there were exchanges between the judge and the prosecutor. What happened there?

HESS: During pretrial hearings, the prosecution wanted to bring up several things that Mr. Rittenhouse had done in the weeks before, and the judge had ruled no. Some of these things were just, you know, times he had been out with different groups or even statements he had made about wishing he had a gun when he saw some alleged shoplifters. And today, the prosecution has sort of walked along the line of bringing that up. And so this raises questions about a possible appeal.

CORNISH: Again, very early days in this case. Corrinne Hess with Wisconsin Public Radio. Thank you.

HESS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.