The judge overseeing the murder prosecution of Kenosha shooter Kyle Rittenhouse caused quite a stir during a pre-trial hearing focused on evidentiary issues late Friday morning.
Kenosha County Judge Bruce Schroeder repeatedly ruled against the government on key requests — including photo evidence that shows the defendant flashing a “white power” or “white supremacy” hand symbol earlier this year while partying with several far-right Proud Boys members at a bar in Racine, Wis.
“The defendant’s continued association with members of a group that prides itself on violence, and the use of their symbols, raises the significant possibility of future harm,” prosecutors previously wrote in an evidence motion. “Further, this association may serve to intimidate potential witnesses.”
The photograph in question has been submitted into evidence by the state. It shows the defendant making the co-opted “OK” sign while posing with unidentified members of the far-right “Western chauvinist” group and smiling while at Pudgy’s Pub with his mother. During that visit, Rittenhouse wore a highly-publicized t-shirt that read: “Free as Fuck.” The bar-room episode occurred on the night the defendant pleaded not guilty to his charges. After meeting the Proud Boys, Rittenhouse was “loudly serenaded” by the group who sang their anthem to him. Prosecutors said they were trying to valorize his violence.
Ruling against the government’s bid to introduce that evidence, the judge said he had “never heard” of the Proud Boys before being assigned the Rittenhouse case and was unsure if the Proud Boys themselves are either violent or a hate group. Assailing the government’s narrative and presentation of that evidence, Schroeder clarified that he would not rely “on a Seattle newspaper” to describe the group because there’s “so many groups” in the country.
“Unfortunately this case has become a surrogate for a lot of emotional reaction,” the judge added — describing Rittenhouse being feted by the racist group as nothing more than “a happenstance.”
In response, Assistant District Attorney Thomas C. Binger adamantly insisted that the government would marshal significant resources — in the form of experts, witness testimony, and other evidence — to describe the Proud Boys and would not rely on a single newspaper article. But this approach was ultimately all for naught.
Schroeder disputed that the “OK” symbol was racist and said he had also “never heard” of the hand sign being used in a racist context.
“The first time I saw it was on a can of Chef Boyardee,” the judge said.
Audibly agitated, Binger interjected during the judge’s speech to say: “We’re not saying Chef Boyardee is a member of the Proud Boys.”
Binger appeared to be trying to get the judge back to the core legal point being argued. After the joke about canned pasta, however, the government attorney was more than agitated; his voice was raised with anger at Schroeder’s decision.
Binger went on to explain that Rittenhouse later had lunch with the head of the national Proud Boys group — roughly a week after the bar party — who also picked him up from the airport in Miami. The prosecutor said the defendant’s relationship with the Proud Boys is “clearly consistent and intentional” and relevant for jurors to consider without being too prejudicial. In the end, however, the judge serially disagreed — reaping substantial dividends for the defense.
Radio Milwaukee journalist Evan Rytlewski noted the defense’s pleasure at seeing the government attorneys squirm on Friday:
Rittenhouse’s attorney is grinning as the judge continually cuts down every argument the prosecutors are making about why key evidence about Rittenhouse’s character, affiliations and gun ownership should be admitted.
The judge is incredibly sympathetic to Rittenhouse. pic.twitter.com/3y4kvyNDyR
— Evan Rytlewski (@Evanryt) September 17, 2021
“I think the evidence would be poison,” Schroeder concluded.
The judge left the door open for the government to show that the defendant had a prior relationship with the Proud Boys — but added that he is generally averse to gang affiliation evidence. Schroeder added that kids join gangs in the area “because they are scared” and not because they want to.
“Pope Benedict was a member of the Nazi Youth because he had to be” the judge said, solidifying his ruling that the “gang evidence” would simply be too prejudicial in the present case.
There is, in the judge’s words, “a little” room for the government to show a prior Proud Boys affiliation in the case, but the judge was highly adverse to the government using any post-incident affiliation between Rittenhouse and the group. And the government suggested it did not have evidence of prior links between Rittenhouse and the Proud Boys to present to the court.
[Image via court pool feed/Law&Crime Network]
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