Madison, Wis. — Prosecutors in the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial may have lost their best chance to convict an Illinois man of something when the judge charged that Rittenhouse was a minor in possession of a dangerous weapon.
Rittenhouse shot and killed three people with an AR-15-style rifle last year during a chaotic protest against police brutality in Kenosha. A jury deliberated on Friday about 3 1/2 days before finding Rittenhouse not guilty of five felony charges, including a murder charge that could carry a prison sentence.
That jury never had to consider a charge of gun possession—one that at one time seemed a slam-dunk for prosecutors. Rittenhouse was 17 at the time, and there is no dispute that he was armed with a Smith & Wesson AR-style semi-automatic rifle tied to his chest on the night of the shooting.
Although the charge was only a misdemeanor—a maximum sentence of nine months in prison—it would have offered a way for the jury to convict Rittenhouse of a lesser crime, if they had been persuaded by their self-defense claims, but with prosecutors. Agreed with that he made a poor decision to take the rifle to the streets of Kenosha.
Hours before the start of the arguments on Monday, Judge Bruce Schroeder moved a defense motion to eliminate the weapons charge. Rittenhouse’s attorneys Mark Richards and Corey Chirafisi pointed to an exception in the law that they said minors are allowed to own shotguns and rifles, as long as they are not short-barreled.
Assistant District Attorney James Cross argued that the exception makes the state’s ban on minors possessing dangerous weapons meaningless. But when he admitted that the barrel of Rittenhouse’s rifle was longer than 16 inches, the minimum barrel length allowed under state law, Schroeder dismissed the allegation.
For Kenosha-based defense attorney Michael Cichini, the statute clearly required a weapon to be enforced, and the judge made the right call.
“There doesn’t seem to be much ambiguity here,” he said. “(the allegation) should have been dismissed earlier.”
The current wording of the comprehensive law seems clear: “Any person under the age of 18 who possesses or possesses a dangerous weapon is guilty of a Class A misdemeanor.” A lead-in paragraph defines a dangerous weapon as any number of things, including “any firearm, loaded or unloaded”.
The subsection that defense attorneys relied on for the dismissal read: “This section applies only to a person under the age of 18 who possesses a rifle or firearm or who violates s. 941.28…” That section of the law is not specific to minors, but prohibits any person from possessing a short-barreled shotgun or rifle.
“We knew from the beginning that if you read that statute correctly, it was legal to keep that firearm,” Richards said Friday after acquitting Rittenhouse of the remaining charges.
The development of legislation on children and guns is questionable. Prior to 1987, Wisconsin banned children from possessing pistols. Then-government Tommy Thompson, a Republican, signed a law that year expanding the prohibition to include short-barreled firearms, electric weapons, brass knuckles, throwing stars and nunchucks. Four years later, Thompson signed another law banning any firearm. But that law allowed minors to own long guns for hunting, as long as the barrel was at least a foot long.
Legislative records show that the statutory language went through several amendments until at least 2011.
The wording is hardly straightforward. Schroeder himself said he was confused about this when Richards first asked him to drop the possession charge earlier this year.
The incentive for carving is unclear. Jerry Bonavia, executive director of the Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort, a group working to reduce gun violence, said the National Rifle Association was a campaign to get guns in children’s hands in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Was making national effort so that the creation of a lifetime could be done. gun owner; Warnings may be part of that push, she said. But she said it appears minors may have long guns, as long as they are not hacked.
He said concerned.
“There are many things we don’t allow young people under 18 to do. There are reasons for that. Judgment isn’t as proven at age 16 as it is later. We’ve seen that with sad consequences. What does it mean in Kenosha?”
Tom Grieve, a Milwaukee attorney and a former Waukesha County prosecutor, speculated that the long gun exception was drafted to ensure that children could hunt and that lawmakers did not envision that it could be used for those children. Can be done to protect those who carry long guns at protests such as demonstrations. Kenosha.
“I think it was designed with an eye toward hunting and to enable law enforcement to add additional charges against minors hunting without a license,” he said. “Wisconsin is a hunting state. When people talk of long arms, they are thinking in terms of hunting.”
He said he felt it was right to dismiss Schroeder’s charge. Grieve called the exception an “extraordinarily poorly worded statute,” which is marred by technical language and lots of cross-referrals to other sections of Wisconsin weapons and hunting laws. He noted that this is typical of the more obscure areas of state law, which receive little attention. When a law is so confusing, the legal principle calls for judges to interpret it in favor of the defendants, he said.
“If it was baseball, the tie goes to the runner,” he said. “It’s a foreign concept to us in 21st century America, but in terrible conditions around the world you have repressive governments that thrive under poorly written laws, allowing people to prosecute whenever they want. (theory) There is a protective shield against tyranny.”
Defense lawyer Cicchini rejected prosecutors’ contention that the exception broke the law intended to prevent minors from possessing dangerous weapons. He said the prohibition still prohibits children from carrying pistols, saw-off shotguns and other weapons such as rifles and brass knuckles.
Both Grieve and Cicchini said they never saw the long-gun exception at play, as in Rittenhouse’s case, primarily because juveniles use handguns when committing crimes and prosecutors in those cases are more serious. Alleged crimes, such as armed robbery.
Democrat John Erpenbach, who has served in the state Senate since 1998, said he does not know why the exception was developed, but he cannot imagine lawmakers’ intentions to allow children to walk down the street with semi-automatic rifles. was to be allowed.
“Certainly in 1991 we were not seeing what we were seeing in ’19, ’20 and ’21 with protests and rebellions,” he said. “Once you throw a gun in there, it’s not a good situation for anyone. If that law is written down today, I think the example would come to mind of a legislator, ‘Wait a minute, is Kenosha’s position covered or does it leave a loophole?'”
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This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Chirafisi.
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