Kyle Rittenhouse faced a strange duel in his criminal trial last month for the death of a dead pedestrian.
The other side was known only to the jury in a case that has made headlines since the early 1990s. Rittenhouse, a Longview, Texas, man convicted in 1992 of murder for the shooting death of his girlfriend’s 3-year-old son, retried the case in a Texas district court. The first trial’s conviction was overturned in 2015.
But in a rare coincidence that has been seen only once before, the capital murder retrial took place the same week that prosecutors in the Montgomery County district attorney’s office were pursuing a theft charge against Rittenhouse for another one of his girlfriend’s children. That case was previously dismissed on a technicality. Rittenhouse’s defense teams dismissed the theft allegations as an attempt to distract jurors from the retrial for the killing of Ronald Gray.
The new charges, which could add years to the life sentence he faces for Gray’s slaying, came at a time when witnesses for Rittenhouse’s defense team were unusually absent, suggesting that the retrial had caught them off guard. Rittenhouse’s co-defendant Richard King, who was charged with burglary of a habitation but pleaded guilty to felony possession of a firearm, and friend Terance Kay Leftwich, charged with tampering with evidence, also were ill and did not testify.
Rittenhouse’s attorneys had never tried a murder case before. One attorney had not argued a motion for a mistrial before, and a forensic analyst assigned to represent the prosecution had never seen a murder charge.
The defense’s task was complicated because at the time of Gray’s slaying, neither a warrant nor law enforcement documents existed. But after the first trial, investigators found Gray’s car in a ditch along Interstate 20 and spent weeks searching for the young boy’s body, leading to Rittenhouse’s arrest in Texas. At that point, investigators discovered a name they didn’t know that matched the badly decomposed body, and prosecutors connected Gray’s killing to the murder charge against Rittenhouse.
All of that was said in court on Nov. 1, the day the defense team asked for a mistrial, citing a search that was filed with a court in Virginia. The defense team said the search was improper, that Rittenhouse’s statements to police were taken before the discovery of Gray’s body, and that the search for Gray’s body involved a wrong address.
The request for a mistrial was granted. “This unusual proceeding appears to be unprecedented in any court in any jurisdiction in this state,” Judge Tim Cavanagh wrote in his order.
But jurors convicted Rittenhouse on Nov. 2 of criminally negligent homicide and obstruction of justice for lying to authorities, and Cavanagh found that the state “began the prosecution of Rittenhouse prematurely.”
By then, defense lawyers had exhausted their witnesses in asking for a mistrial. But an earlier plea of innocence filed by one of Rittenhouse’s co-defendants, King, and his $10,000 bail request were to give them new grounds. King had asked to be released from jail under supervision by the court, according to court documents.
Those documents did not speak to the trial’s importance.
The other defense witness was Gerald Caldwell, a forensic examiner with the Denton County, Texas, sheriff’s office.
Caldwell made the first “difference maker” when he testified on Nov. 2 that Gray’s body had been badly decomposed and that the name on the Lumberton, Texas, address on the documentation from a home was not Ronald Gray’s.
Caldwell then stuck a knife in his back about an hour later, when he testified that the records from King’s arrest as a juvenile, when he was accused of using a minor to buy marijuana, were accurate. Caldwell’s earlier presentation on a faulty police investigation had questioned the reliability of that information. He also defended King’s other false statements on the witness stand.
The prosecutor asked Caldwell to explain his logic, but Caldwell declined, saying, “I’m not going to get into the reasoning.”
The prosecutor then asked the judge to reprimand Caldwell for mentioning his errors. He said Caldwell has been punished with a “point by point” rebuke from superiors, but it seemed the extent of the punishment.
The judge could not determine, without further documents, the exact effect the evidence had on the verdict. But he decided it was enough that the defense team had asked for a mistrial before it had a chance to present its case.