Kyle Rittenhouse lawyer seeking new money, promising lawsuits

Defense Attorney John Pierce, right, speaks as Kyle Rittenhouse, left, listens during an extradition hearing in Lake County court Friday in Waukegan, Ill. Rittenhouse is accused of killing two protesters days after Jacob Blake was shot by police in Kenosha, Wis.

Kyle Rittenhouse’s original lawyer says he is no longer part of his criminal defense team, but he is still trying to raise money for his client through a brand new website, and planning a different kind of defense.

John Pierce told the host of a show on Newsmax TV that he’s preparing “probably the most significant case of defamation in the history of the country,” against defendants like President-elect Joe Biden, Facebook, CNN and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Newsmax is a conservative news site that backs President Donald Trump’s false claims of election fraud.

By Monday, Pierce had expanded that list to “thousands” of suits, and even actor Mark Ruffalo is in his Twitter cross-hairs. 

Pierce said some of those targets have referred to Rittenhouse as a white supremacist and a mass murderer, “all of which is completely untrue and defamatory. So there are going to be a lot of lawsuits coming.” He started with a letter to Yahoo!

Antioch police photographed Kyle Rittenhouse after the 17-year-old turned himself in after shooting three people, killing two, during unrest in Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020.

He stuck with hyperbole in describing his client’s criminal case, where Rittenhouse faces charges of intentional, reckless and attempted homicide from the Aug. 25 shootings in Kenosha.

“Let me say this is probably the most important case in the history of self-defense in the American legal system,” Pierce said.

“We’re going to need millions of dollars more.”

Whether he’ll get it this time remains an open question. Since the first round of donations at the start of the case, Pierce has parted ways with Lin Wood, an Atlanta lawyer with nearly 750,000 followers on conservative social media, and there’s been wider reporting about Pierce’s myriad financial troubles.

Pierce, a Los Angeles civil litigator, faces several collection actions for hundreds of thousands  — if not millions — of dollars from past litigation funders and vendors. A Texas-based foundation he started with Wood — now focused on trying to thwart Georgia elections — already raised about $2 million for Rittenhouse’s defense. Some of it was probably paid to Pierce and other lawyers, and some might have gone to posting Rittenhouse’s $2 million bail, but neither Wood, Pierce nor the foundation has provided a clear accounting.

Some of the people who donated — including a woman who says she gave $800,000 — have started demanding answers and threatening their own lawsuits.

In his latest solicitations, Pierce has said all donations will be held in trust “and controlled by Kyle’s mother,” Wendy Rittenhouse, with whom Pierce has appeared at Republican functions and interviews with both conservative and mainstream news outlets since Rittenhouse’s arrest. 

Pierce did not respond to an email inquiring about the trust arrangement.

Assuming Pierce would still have influence over how the money gets spent, he would arguably still be involved in the defense of the criminal case. And he could construe defense to include defense of Rittenhouse’s reputation, to justify using donations to pursue the defamation actions.

Presumably, the main purpose of the money going forward would be to pay Rittenhouse’s actual defense attorney, Mark Richards of Racine, and expenses related to preparing the defense such as investigators and experts. 

In a brief opposing Pierce’s admission to practice in Wisconsin, Kenosha prosecutors said a Madison criminal defense attorney, Corey Chirafisi, had joined Richards, but Chirafisi has not filed a formal appearance in the case. That could suggest Pierce hasn’t come up with the money to pay Chirafisi’s retainer.

Neither Chirafisi nor Richards returned requests to discuss that situation.

His lawyers say, and many others agree, that Rittenhouse could have a strong case of self-defense based on videos that show his victims chasing, attacking or aiming a gun at him before he shot them.

But Pierce’s efforts to raise money could hurt his client’s position at trial. Since Rittenhouse left jail, Pierce has posted numerous photos of his client and his mother smiling happily, images prosecutors might try to utilize against him

Chris Van Wagner, a well-known Madison criminal defense attorney, recently tweeted to another lawyer, “Is it just me or does anyone else think a Kenosha DA is already marking these ‘happy face’ pics for cross when asking the accused how it felt to kill?”

Some of the early funds raised from supporters nationwide through #FightBack Foundation presumably covered the expenses of Wendy Rittenhouse — a single mother of three — moving from the family’s Antioch, Illinois, apartment. Pierce cited death threats.

On Monday, Pierce tweeted that the new website, which only went live last week, had raised in the five figures. He promised a counter of the donations was being added to the website, though it hadn’t appeared as of Tuesday.

Donations are not tax-deductible, and as the site reminds in fine print, “Donations do not give donors a right to influence an attorney’s independent judgment in the representation of the client nor interfere in the attorney-client relationship.”

On the Newsmax show Friday, Pierce again put Wendy on camera, where she seemed to struggle to answer simple questions (Pierce said she was still emotional, even after numerous prior media interviews). 

There, and in other interviews, she has repeated that her son went to Kenosha to help clean up damage from vandals and looters and to protect a private business and never planned to hurt anyone. This week, Pierce tweeted a photo of himself with Kyle, his mother and his sister, in front of a large Christmas tree that read, “Happy Holidays from the Rittenhouse family.”

Pierce was first introduced to the Rittenhouse case by Wood, who said Pierce would be leading the defense team. Pierce said it didn’t matter that he wasn’t licensed to practice in Wisconsin and didn’t have criminal defense experience. “I win trials, is what I do,” he told the Journal Sentinel.

Not many recently. In 2017, Pierce started a law firm — which has rebranded several times since echt and predicted it would be a top global litigation firm in less than a decade. Instead, it broke up in less than two years.

In March, the firm announced Pierce had taken a leave of absence as it investigated complaints he’d pledged firm assets as collateral for a personal loan. He later said in court documents that he had gone into rehabilitation that month after facing “personal challenges.”

A former Harvard Law School classmate whom Pierce recruited for the firm’s New York City office, Don Lewis, has maintained a withering account of Pierce and his former firm’s implosion. Lewis says the firm falsely accused him of sexual harassment in the workplace in 2018 after he started raising financial and ethical concerns. Lewis has sued over the ouster.

In the meantime, he’s become a meticulous chronicler of Pierce’s problems, via a channel on Medium. 

One of the more pertinent nuggets Lewis has unearthed related to the latest developments is that Pierce and his former firm’s biggest debts appear to be to groups he convinced to pay upfront for cases Pierce said he could win for millions of dollars.

According to Lewis, Pierce’s firm netted about $500,000 in a single court victory in 2018.

Similar is Pierce’s new pitch to regular folks who support Rittenhouse, promising liberals will pay millions in damages for defamation — if Pierce can generate the seed money for such litigation.

This year, Pierce has withdrawn from large civil cases in other states, citing the breakup of his firm, which is down to two lawyers who can’t properly manage “two dozen complex cases.” 

Former baseball player Lenny Dykstra had hired Pierce’s firm last year to sue another firm Dykstra felt mishandled his civil rights lawsuit over his treatment in a Los Angeles jail. Dykstra dropped Pierce last month.

Contact Bruce Vielmetti at (414) 224-2187 or bvielmetti@jrn.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ProofHearsay.