Kyle Rittenhouse, the Illinois teenager who was charged with killing two people and injuring a third during unrest over the police shooting of a Black father in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last August, is now a free man. His acquittal comes after a deeply divisive trial in which Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder was widely criticized for a series of controversial decisions and comments.
In court, prosecutors described Rittenhouse as a “teenage vigilante” who traveled across state lines to Kenosha with an AR-15 he wasn’t legally allowed to have. Rittenhouse, who said he had taken it upon himself to “protect” businesses from Black Lives Matter protesters, ultimately shot and killed 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum and 26-year-old Anthony Huber. A third man, 27-year-old Gaige Grosskreutz, was injured but survived.
Rittenhouse’s defense attorneys presented the then-17-year-old’s actions as justified self-defense, saying he had no choice. In testimony last week, Rittenhouse said, “The person that attacked me first threatened to kill me twice.” On Friday, a jury found the 18-year-old not guilty of five charges, including first-degree reckless homicide, at the end of a trial marred with bizarre prosecutorial squabbles, slams at the media, and controversial decisions by Schroeder.
Schroeder’s debatable handling of the case has provoked no shortage of outrage during the trial, and his style behind the bench raised eyebrows more than once. Here are the wildest decisions and remarks by the Wisconsin judge:
One of the easiest charges for prosecutors to prove, according to legal experts, was a misdemeanor weapons possession count over Rittenhouse’s gun. In Wisconsin, anyone under the age of 18 is prohibited from owning a “dangerous weapon.” No one disputed that Rittenhouse was 17 when he brought a rifle to Kenosha, which could have put him in jail for up to nine months. But Rittenhouse’s lawyers found a loophole stemming from a 1991 bill, which allows minors to own rifles or shotguns as long as they are not short-barreled. Rittenhouse’s AR-15 was not short-barreled, which Schroeder used to dismiss the gun charge last week, mere hours before jurors began deliberations.
Schroeder was also slammed by legal experts for letting Rittenhouse himself pick the names of the final 12 jurors who would decide his fate. At Schroeder’s request, Rittenhouse’s defense team put 18 slips of paper with the ID numbers of all the jurors, including alternates, into a raffle hopper. Rittenhouse then drew six of the slips, with the numbers 11, 58, 14, 45, 9, and 52. The rest would go on to decide Rittenhouse’s guilt or innocence.
In attempting to later explain his decision, Schroeder went off on a bizarre rant with racial overtones. He claimed he last let a clerk choose the juror names 20 years ago, which led to “a bad optic” since the defendant on trial was Black. “There were 13 jurors, one of whom was Black,” Schroeder said. “And when the clerk, the government official, drew the name out of the tumbler, it was a Black, the Black, the only Black… I think people feel better when they have control, so ever since that case, I’ve had an almost universal policy of having the defendant do the picks.”
Schroeder also came under fire for a remark he made previously about a lunch order.
“I hope the Asian food… isn’t on one of those boats in Long Beach Harbor,” he said, ham-handedly referring to the supply chain issues currently occurring among certain U.S. shipping routes.
At one point during the trial, Schroeder, who barred prosecutors from referring to Rittenhouse’s victims as “victims,” faced scrutiny over his choice of ringtone. When his cellphone began ringing as a defense attorney was speaking, it began blaring Lee Greenwood’s treacly patriotic anthem, “God Bless the U.S.A.” Schroeder quickly silenced his phone and tried to act as if nothing happened, but onlookers raised a plethora of questions about the judge’s sympathies. The song, which came out in 1984, became known in recent years as one of ex-President Donald Trump’s entrance tunes at political rallies.
On Veterans Day, Schroeder brought the jury into the courtroom and asked if anyone among them was a veteran. When none said they were, Schroeder asked those in the courtroom gallery if any of them were veterans. None were. Schroeder then noted that the next defense witness, a use of force expert named John Black, was a veteran. The judge then requested “a round of applause” for Black, a move that legal experts decried as inappropriate and something that could improperly skew jurors’ perception of the witness.
The night before the verdict was returned, Schroeder allowed one juror to bring home legal instructions, a decision one lawyer described as “definitely unusual.” “The natural issue is that it will precipitate armchair research and table discussion,” former prosecutor Tom Grieve told the Associated Press. Defense attorney Mark Richards asked Schroeder to decline the juror’s request, also concerned about their carrying out improper legal research on their own. “I’m afraid it’s going to be the old dictionary game and they start defining words and things like that, outside research. That’s my concern,” Richards said. Schroeder decided to let the juror bring the 36-page document home, arguing that the jury instructions were “very confusing.”
Schroeder, a former prosecutor, was once known for being harsh on those before him. “Defendants Ask For Any Judge But Schroeder,” read a 2006 headline in the Kenosha News.
“Judge Schroeder gives you a fair trial if you’re a defendant. You don’t want him if you’re being sentenced. We knew we wanted a fair trial,” Richards said during a Friday press conference.
In an emailed statement on Friday, civil-rights attorney Jamie White said, “Prosecutors overcharged this case. The charge that Rittenhouse deliberately went to the protest with the premeditated intention to kill was a tough hill to climb. Some of the lesser offenses on the list, such as reckless homicide as opposed to intentional murder, may have been more plausible. But ultimately the jury didn’t see it that way.”
Kenosha County DA Michael Gravely asked the community to stay calm in the verdict’s aftermath.
—Pilar Melendez contributed research and reporting.