US teenager Kyle Rittenhouse tearfully told jurors in his Wisconsin murder trial on Wednesday that “I did what I had to do” after enduring threats and attacks while carrying an AR-15-style rifle during racial justice protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Mr Rittenhouse has been charged with the killings of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and the wounding of Gaige Grosskreutz.
The teenager faces life in prison if convicted.
In taking the stand, Mr Rittenhouse tried to portray himself as wanting to help others during the protests last year, saying he opened fire only in self-defence after being attacked and ambushed.
He was 17 years old on the day of the shootings.
Questioned by the prosecution, Mr Rittenhouse said, “I did what I had to do to stop the person who was attacking me.”
“By killing them?” Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger asked.
“Two of them passed away but I stopped the threat from attacking me,” Mr Rittenhouse replied.
“By using deadly force?” Mr Binger asked.
“I used deadly force,” Mr Rittenhouse said. “I didn't know if it was going to kill them. But I used deadly force to stop the threat that was attacking me.”
When asked about the night of the shootings, Mr Rittenhouse detailed his encounter with Rosenbaum.
“I didn't notice Mr Rosenbaum until he came out from behind the car and ambushed me,” Mr Rittenhouse told the jury, before he started to breathe heavily and shed tears as the judge called for a break.
Moments earlier, Mr Rittenhouse said that Rosenbaum had threatened twice to kill him before their final encounter, telling a group he was with, “I'm going to cut your [expletive] heart out.”
The trial took a tense turn when Judge Bruce Schroeder interrupted Mr Binger's cross-examination to harshly rebuke the prosecution for improperly introducing evidence that he was earlier inclined to prohibit.
“Don't get brazen with me,” Mr Schroeder told Mr Binger during the testy exchange.
Defence lawyer Mark Richards raised the prospect that Mr Binger was attempting to provoke a mistrial with the line of questioning.
“I ask the court to strongly admonish him. And the next time it happens, I’ll be asking for a mistrial with prejudice,” Mr Richards said.
This week, the jury watched drone video footage that showed Rosenbaum following Mr Rittenhouse, and then Mr Rittenhouse wheeling around and shooting Rosenbaum at close range.
Prosecutors during the trial have emphasised that Mr Rittenhouse was the only person to have shot anyone on a night when hundreds of protesters had taken to the streets, some peacefully and others engaged in arson, looting and rioting.
The Kenosha unrest erupted after a white policeman shot and seriously wounded Jacob Blake, a black man.
The prosecution rested its case on Tuesday. Prosecutors tried to portray Mr Rittenhouse as a vigilante who used deadly force without justification.
By Wednesday, it was still unclear whether Mr Rittenhouse would take the stand.
Witnesses that prosecutors have called to the stand have frequently made Mr Rittenhouse’s case for him, saying that the men he shot were the aggressors and that Mr Rittenhouse told people in the immediate aftermath he had no choice but to pull the trigger.
“[The state’s witnesses] enabled the defence to tell their story of self-defence more through cross-examination … and that may be enough to get the reasonable doubt or self-defence verdict,” said Loyola Marymount University law professor Laurie Levenson.
Mr Rittenhouse, 18, has become a hero to some conservatives who believe in unfettered gun rights and see the shootings as justified amid the chaos that had engulfed Kenosha.
To win an acquittal on self-defence grounds, defendants must show that they reasonably believed their lives were in danger and that they used the appropriate amount of force.
Agencies contributed to this report