The people shot by Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last August cannot be referred to as “victims” by prosecutors in court, a judge ruled on Monday.
Defense attorneys may, however, call them “arsonists” or “looters”, the judge said.
“The word ‘victim’ is a loaded, loaded word. And I think ‘alleged victim’ is a cousin to it,” said Judge Bruce Schroeder on Monday.
“Let the evidence show what the evidence shows. And if the evidence shows that any or more than one of these people were engaged in arson, rioting or looting – then I’m not going to tell the defense they can’t call them that,” he added, before what is expected to be a contentious trial starting next week.
In response to Schroeder’s ruling on Monday, assistant district attorney Thomas Binger said that he was creating a “double standard”, saying: “If I were to count the number of times that you’ve admonished me not to call someone a victim during a trial, it would be in the thousands.”
“The terms that I’m identifying here, such as ‘rioters’, ‘looters’, ‘arsonists’, are as loaded, if not more loaded, than the term ‘victim’,” Binger added.
Schroeder also said Mark Richards, one of Rittenhouse’s attorneys, could “demonize them [the shot men] if he wants, if he thinks it will win points with the jury”, according to the Chicago Tribune.
On 25 August 2020, Rittenhouse, then 17 years old, crossed state lines from his home in Antioch, Illinois, armed with an AR-15-style rifle, in response to a Kenosha-based militia group that called for protection for businesses against protesters supporting the Black Lives Matter racial justice movement.
Rittenhouse is facing multiple felony charges of homicide in the shooting and deaths of Joseph Rosenbaum, 36, and Anthony Huber, 26, as well as attempted homicide for shooting and wounding Gaige Grosskreutz, 27.
He is also charged with a misdemeanor count of possession of a dangerous weapon by a minor. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges and his attorneys argue that he acted in self-defense.
The rallies took place over several days in response to a white police officer’s shooting of a Black man, Jacob Blake, in the back from close range, which was caught on video and widely shared across social media.
Blake’s shooting came three months after George Floyd was killed while pinned down by police officers in Minneapolis. The officer, Rusten Shesky, who was investigated and cleared for shooting and paralyzing Blake from waist down, returned to duty in April. He was not charged.
Multiple cellphone videos taken during the protests show Rittenhouse walking the streets with the semi-automatic rifle that night with a group of armed men. In a separate video that was shared widely on social media, law enforcement officers were shown offering water to Rittenhouse and other armed civilians, with one saying to them, “We appreciate you guys - we really do.”
Rulings against using the term “victims” are not uncommon in trials involving self-defense claims, but prosecutors argued that the judge was setting up a double standard.
In October, Grosskreutz filed a lawsuit against the Kenosha police department, accusing them of “deputizing” a group of militia vigilantes during the anti-police brutality protests last year.
Grosskreutz’s lawsuit follows legal action that was brought by Huber’s family in August, which claims the city and its police and county sheriff’s departments conspired with White militias, giving them “license … to wreak havoc and inflict injury”.
On Twitter, Victor Ray, a sociologist at the University of Iowa and Brookings fellow, criticized the ruling, saying: “As I’m writing this book #oncriticalracetheory, it’s becoming increasingly clear who is served by the illusion of neutral law.”
He added, in a phone interview with the Guardian on Wednesday: “Critical race theorists argue that racism is sometimes embedded in legal orders that purport to be neutral and unbiased. In this case, a 17-year old with an AR-15 crossed state lines and allegedly shot two protesters to death. These protesters were supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
“By any reasonable definition, the people Rittenhouse allegedly killed are victims, and a judge barring basic, descriptive and factual language from the court is deeply biased.”