MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The judge presiding over Kyle Rittenhouse’s homicide trial opened jury selection Monday with a round of “Jeopardy!”-like trivia, assured potential jurors he doesn’t have COVID-19 and reached back to the fall of the Roman Empire to emphasize the gravity of their duty.
Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder drew laughs in the courtroom — and some cringes on social media — as he peppered potential jurors with trivia questions, and offered commentary on some. When the answer to one was the movie “Psycho,” the 75-year-old Schroeder quipped: “You’ve heard of it.”
One potential juror told Schroeder he had nasal surgery scheduled in 10 days. The judge asked him, “What would you rather do, be here with me or have your nose operated on?” The man responded: “I’ll be honest with you, I’m not looking forward to it.” The judge laughed and said he would take it under consideration.
The tenor of Monday’s hearing was no surprise to one attorney who has appeared before Schroeder.
Michael Cicchini, a Kenosha-based defense attorney, said the beginning of jury selection can be “a logistical nightmare.” Attorneys are handed seating charts and other paperwork as jurors are led in, and they need time to get organized. Schroeder traditionally spends that time playing trivia with the jury pool until the attorneys are ready, he said.
Schroeder is presiding over one of the biggest trials of his career. Rittenhouse, 18, of Antioch, Illinois, shot three people during a protest against police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, in August 2020. The protests began after a white police officer shot Jacob Blake, who is Black, in the back during a domestic disturbance. Blake had been fighting with officers and had a knife; the county prosecutor later declined to charge the officer.
Rittenhouse has said he traveled to Kenosha to protect businesses from looting and arson. Two of the men he shot, Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber, died of their wounds. Rittenhouse also shot and wounded a third man, Gaige Grosskreutz.
Rittenhouse contends he fired in self-defense and conservatives nationwide have rallied behind him, holding him up as a bulwark against chaotic protesters and a symbol of gun rights. Others, including liberals and activists, portray him as a domestic terrorist, saying he made a volatile situation worse by showing up with a gun.
Previously, Schroeder’s highest-profile case was the 2008 homicide trial of Mark Jensen, who was accused of poisoning and smothering his wife. Jensen was convicted, but appellate courts and the state Supreme Court ruled that Schroeder wrongly admitted as evidence a letter Jensen’s wife gave a neighbor saying if anything happened to her Jensen would be responsible. A new trial is set for 2022.
In 2018, Schroeder sentenced a woman convicted of shoplifting to tell the manager of any store she entered that she was on supervision for theft, saying embarrassment can deter criminality. A state appeals court tossed out that sentence.
Schroeder drew scrutiny last week when he told attorneys that Rosenbaum, Huber and Grosskreutz cannot be referred to in court as victims, calling the word “loaded.” But he rejected a prosecution request to block any reference to them as “rioters,” “looters” or “arsonists,” saying the defense can do so if supported by evidence.
On Monday, Schroeder suffered a coughing fit then reassured potential jurors he had been vaccinated three times against COVID-19. He also apologized for being disorganized, saying jury selection doesn’t usually occur on Monday mornings.
Schroeder finally began jury selection with a story about the war in Vietnam, comparing jury duty to being drafted, saying no one would be excused for minor reasons. He then asked for a round of applause for any veterans present.
Cicchini said Schroeder traditionally gives brief speeches about the history of trials to impress upon jurors the importance of their task. On Monday, he referenced the fall of Rome when explaining the system’s evolution.
“When Rome fell, the world changed dramatically,” the judge said, before launching into more history about how cases were decided more than 2,000 years ago. He spoke of priests blessing trials in which defendants had to place their hands on burning coals or in boiling water — if they “didn’t come out too badly,” that was a sign from God of their innocence.
Schroeder also cautioned that media coverage of the case may have misled potential jurors.
“This case has become very political,” he said. “It was involved in the politics of the last election year. … You could go out now and read things from all across the political spectrum about this case, most of which is written by people who know nothing. I don’t mean that that they are know-nothings. I mean that they don’t know what you’re going to know: those of you who are selected for this jury, who are going to hear for yourselves the real evidence in this case.”
Associated Press reporters Amy Forliti in Minneapolis and Scott Bauer in Madison contributed to this report.