When the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teen accused of shooting dead two men and injuring a third during last summer’s nighttime riots in Kenosha, Wisconsin, not a single word will be allowed to describe those who were shot: “victims.”
However, Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder has ordered other words – “rioters,” “thieves” or “rioters” – to be used if Rittenhouse defense attorneys can present evidence of their involvement in those acts.
As he lays out the ground rules for the trial, Schroeder said this week that the designation “victim” is a “charged word” and that even the use of “alleged victim” is very close, telling prosecutors that “complaint witness” or “deceased” are “acceptable alternatives.”
“This is a long-held view of me, and I think very few judges share it with me,” Schroeder said.
While legal experts and lawyers familiar with state laws say Schroeder has good authority to set language limits, his rule is paving the way for more scrutiny in a highly charged trial that has captured national attention since the arrest of Rittenhouse, who is now 18. in August 2020. He faces multiple charges, including murder, in the fatal shootings of Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Hopper and wounding of Gigi Grosskroots.
“It’s the usual norm in his courtroom that a ‘victim’ is not allowed,” said Ted Comic, a local criminal defense attorney who had cases before Schroeder. “He thinks you’re innocent, and with that presumption of innocence, no one is a victim unless it can be proven.”
Keith Findley, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin and a former attorney general, said that while the order is a “defense-friendly position,” it’s not entirely unjustified, because it “would allow prosecutors to continue to use language that suggests a conclusion as if it were a fact given to jurors” .
On the other hand, he said, words like “thief” and “troublemaker” carry negative connotations, and “it seems rather troublesome for a court to ban the use of one descriptor and not another.”
A judge who wants to appear impartial “should not want unfair bias to creep through any language,” said Juliette Sorensen, a professor at Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law.
“If the judge was trying to clear up the language about the events that took place at the time, I don’t know why he didn’t expand it to those other words,” she said. “Describe the events, put the evidence into trial for what happened that night, and we can avoid all words that might be inflammatory.”
Kenosha County Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger, who attended the pre-trial hearing, suggested that Schroeder’s order was a double standard, The Chicago Tribune reported,.
Binger told the court, according to the newspaper. He declined to comment on Wednesday.
Civil rights attorney David Henderson, a former Texas attorney general, said on MSNBC That even if any of the men who were shot had engaged in criminal behavior prior to the confrontation, “that would not give Kyle Rittenhouse the right to shoot them.”
It is not clear what evidence the defense may have in this regard. Rittenhouse’s attorney, Mark Richards, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Rittenhouse pleaded not guilty. Armed with a semi-automatic rifle and acting on calls on social media, he left Illinois to respond to demonstrations in Kenosha, where a black man Jacob Blake was shot by a police officer, prompting a wave of protests against police brutality. Rittenhouse’s defense team is expected to argue that he was attacked because he was trying to protect the companies from thieves, leading him to shoot in self-defense.
In the run-up to the trial, Schroeder rejected pretrial suggestions from both sides, including an attempt by prosecutors to present evidence they said would show Rittenhouse’s tendency to act like a vigilante and the defense asked to include evidence that one of those shot was a pedophile.
“He’s an absolutely meaningless judge,” Komic said. “I wouldn’t tag it, but I think it’s fair.”
Schroeder, 75, a former Kenosha County District Attorney, has been a judge for more than four decades. He is the longest serving active circuit judge in the state, According to the Milwaukee Journal SentinelAnd After being re-elected in 2014 unopposed.
He’s overseen hundreds of court cases, notably one in the 1980s, when a convicted pedophile who was also a prostitute ordered an HIV test because he had the power to “carry death into people’s homes.”
John Anthony Ward, Kenosha’s attorney who represented the man and contested his probation before he was sentenced, has appeared before Schroeder in more than 30 jury trials over the years and has disagreed with some of his rulings.
“He’s not a pro-accused judge,” Ward said. “Judge Schroeder will be Judge Schroeder. He will be exactly the same, with or without the cameras. He will have the same opinion.”
Schroeder was also in the national spotlight in the trial of Mark Jensen, a Wisconsin man who was accused of killing his wife by poisoning her with antifreeze in 1998. Schroeder was sentenced to life in prison. It was Jensen’s conviction Evacuated in April When the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled that the prosecution could not use a letter written by his wife Julie.
Schroeder had allowed the letter and voicemail messages at the original trial, which led to two decades of litigation. Jensen is awaiting a new trial.
With all eyes on him again, legal experts say, it’s important that Schroeder emerge as the impartial arbiter of law in a trial that has once again left the Kenosha residents on edge.
“It is the jury that finds out the facts. The judge is the expert and the judge during the trial,” Sorensen said. “This is what should happen.”