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As the nation awaits a Kyle Rittenhouse verdict, some raise eyebrows at the judge

Judge Bruce Schroeder pictured last week during the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.
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Judge Bruce Schroeder pictured last week during the trial of Kyle Rittenhouse.

Even to those who had never stepped foot in a Wisconsin courtroom, it was clear from the moment jury selection began that Judge Bruce Schroeder — the judge presiding over the state's highest-profile criminal trial in years — would prove memorable.

As the cameras switched on and livestreams began for the first moments of the highly watched criminal trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, the 18-year-old accused of homicide after fatally shooting two people during unrest last year in Kenosha, Wis. — the judge was playing Jeopardy! with the potential jurors.

"Alphabet City for 600. 'I': It's the only major city that straddles two continents, Asia and Europe," Schroeder said. After a juror answered correctly ("Istanbul"), Schroeder had a follow-up: "Okay, can you sing the song?" he said, drawing a round of laughter.

As Rittenhouse's trial has unfolded in the weeks since, Schroeder has alternately drawn cheers and criticism among legal experts and other observers of the trial. While some of his actions were inconsequential, others — including a strong admonishment of the lead prosecutor last week — could be pivotal to the trial's outcome.

"I think what people are surprised by is some of these ... little quirks, maybe, that they're not used to seeing in judges. There are all sorts of personalities that are on the bench, all across the country," said Julius Kim, a defense attorney and former prosecutor based in Milwaukee who has appeared before Schroeder.

A no-nonsense judge

At 75 years old, Schroeder is the longest-serving circuit judge in Wisconsin. He was first appointed in 1983 by a Democratic governor and has continuously won election since, often running unopposed.

He has a well-earned reputation of being both no-nonsense on the bench approachable, say lawyers in Wisconsin. He tells a lot of stories, and he focuses a lot on lunch.

With the trial carried live on TV and internet streams, viewers across the country have been able to get an up-close view of Schroeder in action.

On one day, Schroeder's cellphone rang with "God Bless The U.S.A." by Lee Greenwood. On another, he cited Chaucer as he said, "I do have a rule that is honored in the breach" (although that line is actually from Shakespeare's Hamlet).

Some viewers cringed as Schroeder struggled, as did lawyers and witnesses, to discuss Apple's "pinch-to-zoom" feature and image enlargement algorithms after defense lawyers objected to a drone video that has been enlarged and enhanced by the state crime lab for prosecutors.

Last week, Schroeder drew criticism for a joke some found racist about a lunch delay in court — he said he hoped the Asian food "isn't on one of those boats in Long Beach Harbor."

"He's clearly stuck his foot in his mouth several times," said Chris Zachar, a defense attorney based in La Crosse, Wis. "It's the old-school judge who shoots from the hip and doesn't really think about how this is going to be perceived."

Critics say he's been too hard on prosecutors

Some, especially those on the political left, have accused Schroeder of bias, pointing to several decisions in the defense's favor and an admonishment of the lead prosecutor in a heated moment last week. The judge excused the jury and then raised his voice to tell prosecutor Thomas Binger that his questions had threatened to undercut Rittenhouse's right to remain silent.

Despite the criticism, several legal experts said they believed the admonishment was appropriate.

"The state was way over the line with their line of questioning. That is black-letter law. It is Law School 101," said Zachar.

Schroeder also drew criticism before the trial began when he ruled that prosecutors could not refer to those shot by Rittenhouse as "victims" — "a loaded, loaded word," he said — while allowing defense lawyers to refer to them as "arsonists" and "looters," as long as they could prove those people had taken part in those activities.

"In terms of his legal rulings, I don't see that he's really favored one side or the other too much, in my opinion," said Kim.

He wants the public to be confident in the outcome

At times, Schroeder has acknowledged the intense public spotlight shining on his courtroom and has taken pains to remove the appearances of bias from the proceedings.

"I'm not gonna mess around with a case of this magnitude," he said ahead of jury instructions Monday, warning jurors not to "pay heed" to the opinion of any other people, "even the President of the United States, or the president before him."

During the first week of testimony, he dismissed a juror for making a crude joke about Jacob Blake, the Black man whose shooting by police sparked the unrest in Kenosha, saying, "The public needs to be confident that this is a fair trial."

In the American justice system, a defendant must be presumed innocent until they are found guilty. Though legal experts differed on whether they believed Schroeder had made all of the correct calls, several said that judges should be protective of defendants' rights.

"This is a case that brings to the fore a lot of matters of public concern — gun rights, the use of force by police officers — and it makes sense that people are paying attention, then, to what's happening in the courtroom and the manner in which conversations are occurring," said Cecelia Klingele, an associate law professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

The jury began deliberations Tuesday. A verdict is expected any day.

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.