US teen cleared in protester deaths says self-defence 'not illegal'

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WASHINGTON (AFP) - Kyle Rittenhouse, the US teen acquitted after fatally shooting two men during protests and riots against police brutality in Wisconsin last year, has defended his actions, saying self-defence is "not illegal," and hailed the jury for clearing him.

On Friday, a jury found the 18-year-old Rittenhouse not guilty of reckless and intentional homicide and other charges stemming from the shootings that took place in August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin.

The ruling sparked protests in cities across the country late on Friday - from New York to Portland, Oregon - as well as scattered clapping outside the courtroom, and it drew praise from gun rights advocates, highlighting the divisive nature of the case.

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-defence is not illegal," Rittenhouse says to Fox, ahead of a tell-all interview to be shown on Monday evening and a subsequent documentary about the teenager scheduled to air in December.

"I'm glad that everything went well... We made it through the hard part."

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 neighbouring 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 paralysed.

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-defence 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.

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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.

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