ATLANTA: Demonstrators gather to protest the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse on November 20, 2021 in Atlanta, Georgia. - AFP

WASHINGTON: Kyle Rittenhouse, the US teen acquitted after fatally shooting two men during protests and riots against police brutality in Wisconsin last year, said self-defense is "not illegal" after being cleared, as the verdict reverberated across America. On Friday, a jury found the 18-year-old Rittenhouse not guilty of reckless and intentional homicide and other charges stemming from the August 2020 shootings in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The ruling sparked sporadic protests across the country late Friday-from New York to Portland, Oregon-but also drew praise from Rittenhouse supporters at the courthouse and gun rights advocates, highlighting how divisive the case was. In comments broadcast by Fox News, the teen-seen smiling as he rides in a car after the verdict-said he was relieved that his "rough journey" had come to an end.

"The jury reached the correct verdict-self-defense is not illegal," Rittenhouse said, ahead of a full interview with Fox to be shown today evening and a subsequent documentary scheduled to air in December. "I'm glad that everything went well... We made it through the hard part." Rittenhouse's family later said via a spokesman that they had been moved to an undisclosed location. "They are doing well right now, they're in an undisclosed location, and they're a family and everybody's just ecstatic," spokesman David Hancock told CBS.

Rittenhouse's case drew national attention, in part because it arose from the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that swept the country last year and featured a controversial mix of guns, racial tensions and vigilantism. The teen testified during the two-week trial that he shot dead two men and wounded another with his AR-15 semi-automatic rifle in self-defense after being attacked during a night of unrest in Kenosha.

Rittenhouse, who lived in neighboring Illinois, claimed he went to Kenosha to protect businesses from looters and act as a medic. Prosecutors countered by arguing the then 17-year-old Rittenhouse "provoked" the events on a chaotic night sparked when a white policeman shot a Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back several times during an arrest, leaving him paralyzed. But the jury sided with Rittenhouse.

For John Huber, father of one of the men killed in Kenosha, the "shock" had not dissipated when he appeared on CNN Saturday morning. "We still can't believe it," Huber said. "He should have got about 40 years in prison. That was our expectation." "That guy gets to run free and he's now a hero. And this is my son right here. This is Anthony," Huber said, holding up a small urn and a photo of his son. "There's no justice right now for our family and there's no closure."

Divisive case

The reaction to the verdict reflected the national divide over the right to bear firearms in America-and where the line should be drawn on that constitutionally protected right. President Joe Biden warned against violence following the verdict and appealed for calm. "While the verdict in Kenosha will leave many Americans feeling angry and concerned, myself included, we must acknowledge that the jury has spoken," Biden said in a statement. "I urge everyone to express their views peacefully, consistent with the rule of law."

In an editorial, the Wisconsin State Journal called the verdict "disappointing" and said it was "sure to embolden militant people who seek to take the law into their own hands." "But further violence in response to the verdict won't help anyone," it added. Meanwhile, the Gun Owners of America cheered Rittenhouse as a "warrior for gun owners and self defense rights" and said it would be "awarding him" with an AR-15 like the one he used that night in Kenosha. Rittenhouse-who had faced five charges in total-earned praise from some Republican lawmakers and former president Donald Trump.

The most serious charge-intentional homicide-carried a mandatory sentence of life in prison. The jury deliberated for a total of 26 hours over four days before delivering a unanimous verdict of not guilty on all counts. Shannon Watts, founder of gun control group Moms Demand Action, slammed the verdict. "That a teenager could travel across state lines to a protest he had nothing to do with; shoot three people, killing two; and face no criminal consequences is a miscarriage of justice and an indictment of our criminal justice system," Watts said. - AFP