A Wisconsin judge ruled Monday that attorneys in the Kyle Rittenhouse murder trial could refer to the men the teen shot in Kenosha, Wis., last year as “rioters,” “looters” and “arsonists.” They could not, however, describe Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, who were killed, and Gaige Grosskreutz, who was wounded, as “victims” because the term was “loaded,” the judge said.
The ruling comes ahead of what’s expected to be a contentious trial. Rittenhouse, then 17, shot the men in downtown Kenosha on Aug. 25, 2020, with an AR-15-style rifle after crossing state lines during the turmoil sparked by the shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, by Rusten Sheskey, a White police officer. Rittenhouse was with fellow armed men who had tasked themselves with patrolling Kenosha’s streets amid the chaos.
Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder laid out final ground rules before the trial next week. Rittenhouse faces homicide charges in the deaths of Rosenbaum, 36, and Huber, 26, and an attempted homicide charge for shooting Grosskreutz, 27. He also is charged with being a minor in possession of a firearm. Rittenhouse has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and his attorneys are expected to argue that he acted in self-defense.
Schroeder said that while he advised Rittenhouse’s team against using pejorative terms to describe the three men shot, such language could be used in their closing arguments if evidence shows the men participated in criminal acts. Schroeder said Mark Richards, one of Rittenhouse’s attorneys, could “demonize them if he wants, if he thinks it will win points with the jury,” according to the Chicago Tribune, the first to report the news.
“If more than one of them were engaged in arson, rioting, looting, I’m not going to tell the defense you can’t call them that,” the judge said. Grosskreutz, the lone survivor of the shooting, has not been charged with a crime from that night.
Schroeder’s ground rules reiterated his earlier ruling, in which he stated that the men shot by Rittenhouse could not be called “victims” because the term was prejudicial toward the teen. But on Monday, the judge also allowed the defense to use terms such as “rioters,” “looters” and “arsonists” to refer to those men.
“The word ‘victim’ is a loaded, loaded word,” Schroeder said. “ ‘Alleged victim’ is a cousin to it.”
Although such rulings are not uncommon in trials in which there is a dispute over self-defense, prosecutors suggested the judge was employing a double standard by allowing Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz to be called “rioters,” “looters” and “arsonists” but not “victims.” Assistant District Attorney Thomas Binger questioned how Rosenbaum and Huber, in particular, could be so disparaged, given that they would never have the chance to defend themselves.
“The terms that I’m identifying here such as rioter, looter and arsonist are as loaded, if not more loaded, than the term ‘victim,’ ” Binger said.
A voice-mail message left for Schroeder at his office was not immediately returned Tuesday.
Binger told The Washington Post that he had “nothing to add beyond what I said on the record in the hearing” on Monday.
Richards, Rittenhouse’s attorney, defended the judge’s ruling in a Tuesday email to The Post.
“It has been this judge’s practice to refer to complaining witnesses as just that, ultimately the jury will decide after hearing all the evidence if these individuals are in fact ‘victims,’ ” Richards wrote. “If I refer to someone who is starting fires and threatening people with death as a ‘rioter,’ that is the correct term. If I am wrong or misusing the terms, the jury will hold me to account.”
Critics, liberals and activists have described Rittenhouse as a domestic terrorist who made a bad situation much worse, while conservatives have championed the teen as a patriot and a symbol for gun rights in the United States.
Earlier this month, Grosskreutz filed a lawsuit against the city and Kenosha County alleging that police deputized a “band of white nationalist vigilantes” during last year’s racial justice protests. The complaint opens with words a law enforcement officer allegedly spoke to Rittenhouse that night: “We appreciate you guys — we really do.”
“These were the words of Kenosha law enforcement officers — words of encouragement, appreciation, and thanks, spoken to Kyle Rittenhouse and a band of white nationalist vigilantes on the evening of August 25, 2020,” the complaint states.
It marks the second major legal action against the city and county since August 2020. Huber’s family filed a lawsuit two months ago alleging that the city and its police and county sheriff’s departments openly conspired with White militia members, which gave them “license … to wreak havoc and inflict injury.” If Rittenhouse were Black, the complaint reads, the “defendants would have acted much differently.”
As Richards noted in court this week, the defense is expected to argue that the three men posed a danger on the night the teen shot them. The focus of its argument is expected to be on Rosenbaum, who Rittenhouse’s defense has suggested participated in arson and threatened to kill people.
“The behavior of many people there was lawless,” Richards said Monday, according to the Tribune. “Mr. Rosenbaum was at the top of that list.”
Prosecutors decried what they foresee will be an attempt to sully the reputation of the men who were shot by Rittenhouse.
“This is an attempt to tell the jury that Mr. Rosenbaum was a bad guy who deserved to die,” Binger said. “That’s really what’s going on here, your honor.”
Binger also requested that Schroeder prohibit the video showing police telling Rittenhouse and his armed comrades that they appreciated their presence on the streets of Kenosha. Allowing the video in court would help transform the trial into a referendum on police procedure that night, Binger argued, which is not relevant to the murder charges.
Schroeder said that the video would be allowed but that he would not allow the defense to argue that the words captured on it reflected the feelings of the police department toward Rittenhouse.
“I would not let it be used to prove that the entire police presence on that evening appreciated Mr. Rittenhouse’s behavior or his presence,” the judge said. “Relevance is another matter.”
While some conservatives celebrated the judge’s ruling, others slammed him and wondered what this early ruling would mean for the trial. Jemele Hill of the Atlantic contrasted Rittenhouse’s case with that of Claudette Colvin, the civil rights pioneer who was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a White person on an Alabama bus in 1955 and is seeking to have her conviction expunged.
“Only in America does Claudette Colvin have to beg for her record to be expunged for simply wanting to be treated like a human being,” Hill tweeted. “Meanwhile Kyle Rittenhouse, who crossed state lines to murder two people, has a sympathetic judge and a faction of people calling him a hero.”