Rittenhouse, now 18, had faced a potential life sentence for fatally shooting two demonstrators, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and wounding a third, Gaige Grosskreutz, during the mass protests on August 25, 2020.
A 12-member jury on Friday found Rittenhouse not guilty on two counts of homicide, one count of attempted homicide and two counts of recklessly endangering safety.
Rittenhouse broke down sobbing after the verdict, which came shortly after the judge warned the courtroom to remain silent or be removed.
“The charges against [the] defendant on all counts are dismissed with prejudice and he’s released from the obligation of his bond,” Judge Bruce Schroeder told the court.
Rittenhouse’s lawyers during the trial argued he had a right to carry the semi-automatic rifle he brought to the demonstration and had acted in self-defence after being attacked, while prosecutors had accused the teenager of provoking the deadly violence.
The widely watched case stirred bitter debate across the US over racism, gun violence, and vigilantism, with several civil rights and racial justice groups denouncing Friday’s verdict as a “travesty”.
“Rittenhouse’s trial highlights an urgent need for reform for both police and the criminal legal system. The system is broken, and it desperately needs to be fixed,” Shaadie Ali, interim executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Wisconsin, said in a statement.
“The verdict in the #KyleRittenhouse case is a travesty and fails to deliver justice on behalf of those who lost their lives as they peacefully assembled to protest against police brutality and violence,” the NAACP, a racial justice advocacy group, said in a tweet.
The Congressional Black Caucus, a group of Black federal lawmakers, added: “It is unconscionable our justice system would allow an armed vigilante … to go free.”
Reporting from outside the courtroom, Al Jazeera’s John Hendren said there is “great concern” over possible unrest after the jury’s decision.
“We’re likely to see a very strong law enforcement presence later today,” he said. “Whether we see a repeat of what happened in the summer of 2020, we do not know. There haven’t been huge crowds gathered at the courthouse steps.”
The verdict in the #KyleRittenhouse case is a travesty and fails to deliver justice on behalf of those who lost their lives as they peacefully assembled to protest against police brutality and violence.
— NAACP (@NAACP) November 19, 2021
A resident of Illinois, Rittenhouse had travelled to nearby Kenosha when protests erupted in August 2020 after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, a Black man, in the back, paralysing him.
The demonstrations came amid widespread civil unrest in US cities following the death three months earlier of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, who was killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer.
Rittenhouse claimed he was in Kenosha to protect property from rioters and to provide medical assistance to anyone who needed it.
But the prosecution said the teenager instigated the deadly violence. Prosecutor Thomas Binger repeatedly showed the jury a drone video that he said showed Rittenhouse pointing an AR-15-style weapon at demonstrators.
“You cannot hide behind self-defence if you provoked the incident,” Binger said during his closing arguments. “If you created the danger, you forfeit the right to self-defence by bringing that gun, aiming it at people, threatening people’s lives. The defendant provoked everything.”
Rittenhouse’s lawyers had moved for a mistrial, claiming prosecutors had provided them with an inferior digital version of the drone video that showed Rittenhouse raising his gun and pointing it towards the protesters. During deliberations, the jury had asked to view the video again.
Rittenhouse’s defence team also had attempted to paint the protesters as the ones who incited the violence.
In closing arguments, Mark Richards, Rittenhouse’s lawyer, had called Rosenbaum – the first person who was fatally shot during the protest – a “rioter” and a “crazy person” who went after Rittenhouse.
“Mr Rosenbaum was shot because he was chasing my client and going to kill him, take his gun and carry out the threats he made,” said Richards, adding that Rittenhouse was then attacked by a “mob”.
Rittenhouse took the stand in his own defence during the trial, saying in dramatic testimony that he feared for his life on the night of the fatal shootings. “I didn’t intend to kill them. I intended to stop the people who were attacking me,” he told the court.
The judge was forced to order a break in proceedings after Rittenhouse began sobbing while recalling the events that led to the shootings.
In a setback for the prosecution during the trial, the judge dismissed a charge against Rittenhouse for underage possession of the firearm.
The not-guilty verdict appears to have rested on the definition of self-defence in Wisconsin state law and the jury’s interpretation of videos of the incident, said Gene Rossi, a former federal prosecutor who has been watching the trial.
The defence’s reliance on second-by-second analysis of the videos and Rittenhouse’s own testimony proved critical in winning his acquittal, Rossi told Al Jazeera.
“The jury must have strongly felt that Mr Rittenhouse did not adequately provoke the reaction of the deceased victims and that he had the right to self-defence,” he said.
But Rittenhouse’s detractors pointed to the bigger picture to assess the now-acquitted defendant’s role in the killing. “The micro-specifics of Rittenhouse’s case don’t matter,” the Gravel Institute, a left-wing advocacy group, said in a tweet.
“What matters is that the system felt it had to go through them with such detail and care. Has it ever extended that leeway to the millions of people who carried some drugs, or shoplifted, or violated their parole?”