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Prosecutors cannot call those shot by Kyle Rittenhouse 'victims.' But 'looters' is OK

Kyle Rittenhouse pictured during a motion hearing at the Kenosha County Courthouse on Monday.
Sean Krajacic
Kyle Rittenhouse pictured during a motion hearing at the Kenosha County Courthouse on Monday.

Prosecutors in the criminal trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager who shot and killed two protesters last year in Kenosha, Wis., will not be able to refer to the people he shot as "victims," a judge has ruled, while defense attorneys may be able to call them "arsonists" or "looters."

In a proceeding about the ground rules for the upcoming trial, prosecutors and defense lawyers debated whether certain language, witnesses or evidence would be allowed. The trial begins next week.

"The word 'victim' is a loaded, loaded word. And I think 'alleged victim' is a cousin to it," Judge Bruce Schroeder said on Monday, asking prosecutors to instead use the terms "complaining witness" or "decedent" to refer to those shot by Rittenhouse. (Though not universal, it is not unheard of for judges to feel that the word "victim" presupposes the defendant's guilt.)

Meanwhile, the defense will be allowed to refer to the three people Rittenhouse shot as "arsonists," "looters" or "rioters" so long as they took part in those activities, Schroeder ruled — a decision prosecutor Thomas Binger called "a double standard."

"Let the evidence show what the evidence shows," Schroeder said. "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."

Jury selection begins Monday in the trial. Rittenhouse faces multiple felony charges of homicide and recklessly endangering the safety of others, along with one misdemeanor count of possession of a dangerous weapon by a minor.

He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. His lawyers have argued that the shootings were in self-defense.

His case began during a tumultuous week in Kenosha, Wis., after police there shot and injured a Black man named Jacob Blake as he was attempting to enter his car. Blake survived but was paralyzed from the waist down.

The Blake shooting, which took place less than three months after the death of George Floyd, ignited protests around Kenosha that turned destructive. Over several nights, protesters destroyed police cars, damaged storefronts and burned down a used-car dealership, a furniture store and a state parole office.

On Aug. 25, the third night of protests, Rittenhouse, then 17, made the short trip from his home in Illinois across the state line, armed with an AR-15-style rifle, in response to a call from a Kenosha-based militia group saying it hoped to protect businesses from protesters.

That night, in a set of chaotic confrontations with protesters, Rittenhouse shot several people, killing two, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, and wounding a third, Gaige Grosskreutz.

Monday's two-hour-long hearing effectively provided a preview of the arguments each side will make in the trial and what evidence will be crucial.

Rittenhouse was being "chased," "attacked by the mob," "kicked in the face" and beaten with a skateboard, defense attorney Corey Chirafisi said.

Chirafisi argued the teenager acted in self-defense when he did fire his weapon, while showing restraint and "firearm discipline" in deciding at other times not to shoot.

Prosecutors, for their part, focused on shrinking the jurors' view of the night to a narrow view of Rittenhouse's actions and whether they were reasonable.

Binger asked the judge to disallow a video that was shared widely on social media showing police encountering Rittenhouse roughly 15 minutes before the shootings, tossing him a bottle of water and saying, "We appreciate you guys."

But Chirafisi convinced the judge that the video is relevant to understanding Rittenhouse's state of mind, which is relevant to several of the charges he faces.

First-degree reckless endangerment of safety, for instance, requires prosecutors to demonstrate that Rittenhouse acted with "utter disregard for human life."

"If ... police tell him, 'It's a good thing you people are here,' given the state of lawlessness that's existing, is that something that's influencing the defendant and emboldening him in his behavior?" the judge said. "[That] would seem to me to be an argument for relevance."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
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