The Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial began in a way many predicted, with potential jurors offering up reasons why they shouldn’t be picked to decide a case that has reverberated across the country.

Some had work commitments. Others had child care issues. And dozens had already formed opinions on the case.

So many held unshakable, politically entrenched opinions, in fact, the selection process went late into the evening. The two sides eventually settled on a predominantly white panel of 11 women and 9 men. The judge did not indicate which jurors would serve as the eight alternates in the case.

In August 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse — a 17-year-old from north suburban Antioch — crossed state lines and patrolled downtown Kenosha, amid turmoil surrounding the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by a white police officer. Carrying an AR-15-style rifle that police say a friend illegally purchased for him, Rittenhouse fatally shot two people and wounded a third.

The Blake shooting and subsequent unrest still hangs heavily over this southeast Wisconsin town, where Blake’s family now leads a social justice movement and the downtown still shows signs of the police shooting’s chaotic aftermath. The spots where Rittenhouse fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber and wounded Gaige Grosskreutz can be seen clearly from the courtroom windows.

Of the more than five dozen potential jurors questioned Monday, nearly all were white. They were not asked to identify their race in open court, but there appeared to be no Black men among the group and only one Black woman, according to a pool report. She was later dismissed.

About 7% of the Kenosha County population is Black, according to the latest census figures.

Potential jurors confessed fears about possibly deciding the case, including concerns about how the public will respond to the verdict. Some described fearing for their own safety, saying they borrowed cars or caught a ride to the courthouse so no one would know what their personal vehicles looked like.

“Whatever the verdict is, half the country is going to be up in arms about it,” one woman said. “And we saw what that did to the city of Kenosha last year.”

And it wasn’t just strangers’ opinions that concerned some. One women said she planned to host Thanksgiving dinner this month and she worried about how her relatives would react to the verdict. Another said it would cause problems in her marriage if the verdict didn’t reflect her husband’s views of the case.

“He’s very opinionated, and he already made up his mind,” she said.

Though prospective jurors expressed concerns about sparking protests, demonstrations outside the courthouse were small and never grew beyond about a dozen people at any one time. A few protesters showed up to back Rittenhouse, though most — including members of Blake’s family — came to show support for the families of the men he shot.

“We are vehement about supporting the families and making sure they get justice,” Justin Blake, the uncle of Jacob Blake, said as he stood with the group holding a unity flag. “We know what it feels like to have an injustice done to your family and not get your day in court. These families have a tremendous burden to carry because their loved ones are not coming home ever.”

Many potential jurors also spoke openly about the nights following Blake’s shooting: One recounted a relative who went to the protests, while another helped board up businesses. A young mother described an anxiety-filled night at home alone with her children while parts of the downtown burned. They talked about seeing videos of Rittenhouse shooting the men, opining about it on social media and driving through the downtown to look at the damage in the days following the protests.

One woman said she bought a firearm after the Blake shooting because her neighbors warned that her house could become a target for protesters because she had an American flag hanging outside.

“So I left it up and I got a gun,” she said.

More than two dozen jurors were excused from service throughout the day, reflecting the difficulties of selecting a panel in a high-profile trial. Given the publicity surrounding the case and how deeply the shootings divided the community, both sides must be hypervigilant about identifying jurors with unmovable opinions, legal experts said.

“Ideally you would want a juror that does not have any knowledge about the facts of the case,” said attorney Dan Herbert, who represented then-Chicago police Officer Jason Van Dyke after he was charged with killing Laquan McDonald in an on-duty shooting. “However, because of the history of this case, it is quite unlikely any potential juror would not have some understanding about this case through the media coverage. What is critical is that a juror has not formed any judgments concerning the guilt or innocence of Mr. Rittenhouse.”

Like most judges in high-profile cases, Schroeder assured prospective jurors that knowing, talking or even having an opinion of the case wasn’t grounds for automatic disqualification. The question was whether they could set aside their previous beliefs and look fairly at the evidence.

For many, the answer was no.

“I don’t feel like I can ignore different things I’ve been reading over the past year,” one man said.

Another man told the judge he was such a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment that he couldn’t be an impartial juror. Schroeder pressed whether the man thought the other prospective jurors could give Rittenhouse a fairer trial than he could.

“I would hope so,” the man answered.

Another woman was dismissed after telling the defense she could not be impartial because Rittenhouse brought an assault-style rifle to the protests. She said she could not get past the issue, even if the teen hypothetically was legally allowed to carry the weapon.

“I don’t think a weapon like that belongs in the general public,” she said.

Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty, arguing he shot the men in self-defense. He faces up to life in prison if convicted of the most serious charges.

The teen arrived about an hour before the proceedings began, entering the building through a private garage that allowed him to avoid photographers and reporters waiting on the courthouse steps. His mother and two sisters entered through the public door.

Huber’s father, John, has attended all the pretrial hearings via video conference, but he is not attending the trial. His attorney said the hateful rhetoric that has been directed toward the family since the shooting has made Huber’s parents so wary, they have decided to watch the proceedings online rather than in person.

“It’s still too painful, and after the nasty comments and treatment they have had directed at them and Anthony, they are afraid to be there in person,” their attorney Anand Swaminathan said.

John Huber and Karen Bloom maintain their son, who was among demonstrators protesting the police shooting, is a hero who sacrificed his life to protect others. Authorities say Huber, 26, toting his skateboard, was trying to disarm Rittenhouse shortly after the teen shot and killed Rosenbaum.

They have filed a civil suit against Kenosha law enforcement, alleging authorities incited the bloodshed by allowing Rittenhouse and other armed civilians who clashed with protesters to “mete out punishment as they saw fit.”

©2021 Chicago Tribune. Visit chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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