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Keep all loaded terms out of the Kyle Rittenhouse trial

A politically divided nation will be watching as the teen goes on trial for killing two men during protests that erupted in Kenosha in 2020. There must be no question about justice in this case.

In this Oct. 5, 2021 file photo, Kyle Rittenhouse, appears for a motion hearing, in Kenosha, Wis.
Kyle Rittenhouse appears for a motion hearing earlier this month in Kenosha, Wis.
AP file

Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz were all shot by Kyle Rittenhouse in the summer of 2020.

But prosecutors can’t refer to the dead — Rosenbaum, 36, and Huber, 26 — or the injured — Grosskreutz, 27 — as “victims” during Rittenhouse’s upcoming trial, Kenosha County Judge Bruce E. Schroeder ruled this week.

But Schroeder, in laying out his ground rules, conversely said defense attorneys can describe Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz as “rioters, arsonists, and looters” if they have evidence to prove that the three men were engaged in these activities during the Kenosha protests that followed after Jacob Blake, a Black man, was shot by a white police officer.

But “victim” is too “loaded” of a word, in Schroeder’s view.

From our perspective, the term “victim” is no more “loaded,” no more inflammatory and derogatory, than the words Schroeder ruled may be used against the men who were shot.

In a high-profile trial like Rittenhouse’s, which is scheduled to begin with jury selection on Nov. 1, there is no margin for error, no room for “loaded” or biased terms on either side.

The Rittenhouse case raises so many questions — especially regarding vigilante justice and the dangers of civilians carrying guns, particularly military-style weapons, to scenes of public protests and disturbances — that Schroeder must be scrupulously fair.

A politically divided nation is watching. If the public is to have confidence in the jury’s verdict, there can be no judicial missteps.

A claim of self-defense

From a legal perspective, Schroeder’s ruling is not unusual.

It makes sense that Rittenhouse’s lawyers did not want the word “victim” used before a jury, because they are expected to argue that the 18-year-old was defending himself when he fired a semiautomatic rifle on the night of Aug. 25, 2020.

The hesitancy to use the word “stems from a concern that the term ‘victim’ conclusively states a crime has occurred and therefore, that its use is prejudicial and violates a defendant’s constitutional due process right to a fair trial,” according to 2009 article in a publication by the National Crime Victim Law Institute.

However, the descriptors Schroeder may allow are equally prejudicial, veteran Chicago defense attorney Richard Kling said.

There really wouldn’t be notoriety surrounding Schroeder’s decision to bar the word “victim” if he didn’t juxtapose it with his approval of the controversial words that could be used to portray Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz, attorney Kulmeet S. “Bob” Galhotra says.

“It’s jaw-dropping. It’s truly bizarre,” says Galhotra, who says he never asked a judge to keep prosecutors from using the word “victim” during his nearly three decades with the Cook County public defender’s office.

Since Rittenhouse’s arrest, he’s become a hero among those on the right who see nothing wrong with vigilante justice. He’s been called a patriot, and bailed out of jail with the help of high-profile conservatives, such as actor Ricky Schroder and Mike Lindell, the CEO of MyPillow.

As a veteran judge, we hope Schroeder will make it clear to both prosecutors and defense attorneys: Avoid all pejorative, loaded terms.

Stick to the facts and the law.

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