In Scrutinized Kyle Rittenhouse Trial, It’s the Judge Commanding Attention

Judge Bruce Schroeder, who has presided over Mr. Rittenhouse’s homicide trial, has drawn notice for sparring with prosecutors and offering historical commentary.,

Advertisement

Continue reading the main story

Supported by

Continue reading the main story

It is not every day that jurors in a criminal trial applaud a witness, but that was how the final day of testimony in the homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse began on Thursday. Noting that it was Veterans Day, the judge urged people in the courtroom to clap for military veterans moments after he discovered that the only veteran in the room appeared to be the next witness for the defense, an expert on use of force.

Judge Bruce Schroeder, who has presided over Mr. Rittenhouse’s trial and is the longest-serving state trial court judge in Wisconsin, has drawn attention in recent days as the judge’s courtroom style — stern, chatty and sometimes prone to shouting — has played out on a national stage.

Judge Schroeder, 75, enters court each day wearing a bulky Chicago Blackhawks coat or a Milwaukee Brewers jacket. He has sharply sparred with prosecutors in the case. He has launched into explanations of the fall of Rome and quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The judge has said that he has overseen more homicide trials than any other judge in the state, but perhaps none has garnered more attention than the trial of Mr. Rittenhouse, who is facing charges including intentional homicide after fatally shooting two people and wounding a third amid unrest over a police shooting in Kenosha last year.

Closing arguments in the case are expected on Monday, at which point jurors are to begin deliberations. Mr. Rittenhouse, 18, has said that he feared for his life and was acting in self-defense when he shot the three men. Prosecutors have said that Mr. Rittenhouse, who was living in Illinois, needlessly inserted himself into the demonstrations that were unfolding, and came armed with a semiautomatic rifle that he, then 17, was not legally permitted to possess.

Image

Judge Schroeder arriving for the start of jury selection.Credit…Pool photo by Mark Hertzberg

Noting widespread interest in the trial, Judge Schroeder has suggested that he hoped to explain his rulings thoroughly in court. In many cases where another judge might respond to an objection with just a word — “overruled” or “sustained” — Judge Schroeder has discussed the law, and why he did what he did, for several minutes.

It is a strategy that can be helpful for people unfamiliar with the legal intricacies of a trial, but one that experts said could also create issues for an appeal if Mr. Rittenhouse were to be convicted. (Prosecutors cannot appeal an acquittal.)

“Anytime a judge opens his or her mouth while on the bench, that’s just another opportunity for an appellate attorney to use that down the line as evidence of the judge making a mistake,” said Steven Wright, a clinical law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been following the trial.

Some legal observers have criticized Judge Schroeder’s decisions over what evidence is allowed at trial and which terms lawyers can use, including his decision before the trial began that they should avoid the word “victim” to describe any of the three people Mr. Rittenhouse shot.

But Julius Kim, a defense lawyer and former prosecutor in Milwaukee who has defended clients in Judge Schroeder’s court, said he found the criticism a bit off the mark.

“I can tell you that I’ve seen rulings both in favor of the state and for the defense, and against the state and defense, in this case,” Mr. Kim said.

On Thursday, as testimony in the case neared an end, Judge Schroeder brought the jury into the courtroom and asked if there were any veterans on the jury or elsewhere. When he did not see anyone raise a hand, he noted that Mr. Rittenhouse’s next witness, John Black, was a veteran and then encouraged everyone in the courtroom to “give a round of applause to the people who have served our country.”

pic.twitter.com/VJOe7UVkN7

— Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs (@NickAtNews)

November 11, 2021

Some legal experts said the move might encourage jurors to see the witness more favorably. It was not the first decision by Judge Schroeder to draw notice.

In the past, he has been viewed as unusually tough on defendants. “Defendants ask for any judge but Schroeder,” read a 2006 headline in The Kenosha News. So many defense lawyers had filed to move their cases out of Judge Schroeder’s courtroom, the newspaper reported, that a judge from another county was brought in to hear their cases. In 1987, Judge Schroeder ordered a defense lawyer to spend a day in jail when he refused the judge’s orders to sit down.

Judge Schroeder worked as a prosecutor after graduating from Marquette University Law School in 1970. He was appointed to fill a judicial vacancy in 1983 by Gov. Tony Earl, a Democrat, and was then elected by voters in 1984 and every six years since. He has run unopposed in every election for at least the last 25 years.

Image

Judge Schroeder examined photographs taken the night of the shootings.Credit…Pool photo by Mark Hertzberg

In Mr. Rittenhouse’s trial, Judge Schroeder has often clashed with the prosecution. He berated the lead prosecutor, Thomas Binger, an assistant district attorney, several times on Wednesday, at one point shouting, “Don’t get brazen with me.”

At another point, Mr. Binger began to allude to a video of Mr. Rittenhouse from about two weeks before the shootings, in which Mr. Rittenhouse mused that he wished he had a gun to shoot at people he thought were shoplifting from a pharmacy. The judge had indicated in an earlier ruling that the video should not be mentioned before the jurors, but Mr. Binger said his “good faith explanation” was that the judge had not made a final ruling and that testimony earlier in the day had opened the door for it to be mentioned.

“I don’t believe you,” Judge Schroeder responded, adding, “When you say that you were acting in good faith, I don’t believe that, OK?”

On Thursday, when Mr. Binger sought to ask a video streamer and commentator who had recorded portions of the Kenosha demonstrations whether the website he worked for had a political bias, Judge Schroeder stopped the witness from answering.

“This is not a political trial,” the judge said.

Julie Bosman and Dan Hinkel contributed reporting from Kenosha, Wis. Daniel E. Slotnik also contributed reporting.

Leave a Reply