Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder, the longest-serving active trial judge in Wisconsin, appeared to make an off-colour joke about supply chain backlogs and Asian food as the court discussed a lunch break.
It wasn’t the first time the judge presiding over the closely watched double homicide trial of Kyle Rittenhouse – who faces mandatory life in prison if convicted on the most serious charge against him after killing two men and injuring another in the aftermath of protests against police violence in Kenosha – has been criticised outside the courtroom for his questionable comments throughout the trial.
“I hope the Asian food isn’t coming – it’s not, isn’t one of those boats in Long Beach harbor,” Judge Schroeder said on Thursday as the defence rested the case moved on to the jury.
His apparent reference to “Asian food” coming from boats in congested southern California ports has been perceived as anti-Asian. John Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC, told CNN that it “harms our community and puts us in the crosshairs of microaggressions as well as actual physical violence”.
Heightened scrutiny against Judge Schroeder comes as the case of Mr Rittenhouse pulls together volatile, politically exploited issues dominating discourse and media attention, including police violence, white vigilantism, racial justice, the Second Amendment, and the failures of the criminal justice system.
The judge’s “Asian food” remark on Thursday came as the defence prepared to rest its case, following dramatic scenes during a tense day in court on 10 November, when Mr Rittenhouse appeared on the witness stand for several hours to publicly recount how and why he killed two people and injured another man with an AR-15-style rifle.
On Wednesday, Judge Schroeder admonished prosecutors several times over lines of questioning, paused testimony to question the veracity of “pinch to zoom” features on an iPad to review video evidence of Mr Rittenhouse pointing his gun, and forgot to silence his smartphone’s ringtone of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA”.
The defence on Wednesday also asked for a mistrial with prejudice, meaning that the case against Mr Rittenhouse could not be re-tried.
Evidence concluded on Thursday following eight days of testimony, while Kenosha law enforcement is preparing for unrest following the jury’s verdict, expected next week. Jurors will report back to the courthouse on Monday for closing arguments from both legal teams.
Earlier this month, Judge Schroeder reminded the court of his long-held rule forbidding the use of the term “victims” to describe people killed by the defendant, while allowing politically charged words like “riot”, “looters” and “antifa”.
“He has a reputation for doing what he believes is the right thing and being an independent thinker,” said William Lynch, a retired attorney who served on the board of the ACLU of Wisconsin when Judge Schroeder ruled that sex workers must be tested for HIV in the 1980s.
“For a jury trial, if you get him, you are happy as a defence attorney,” Kenosha criminal defence attorney Michael Cicchini told The Washington Post.
Former Milwaukee County prosecutor Dan Adams told the newspaper that Judge Schroeder is “old school, literally and figuratively”.
On Wednesday, Judge Schroeder appeared sympathetic to defence attorneys who sought to block zoomed-in video evidence by claiming that Apple uses “artificial intelligence” and “logarithms” to create “what it thinks is there, not what necessarily is there”.
Judge Schroeder suggested that prosecutors provide expert testimony to dispute that.
He acknowledged that he lacked technical proficiency and claimed not to know about some of the topics raised during pretrial hearings – including the nationalist Proud Boys gang, who offered support to Mr Rittenhouse after the shootings. In January, Mr Rittenhouse also appeared in a photograph with alleged members as he wore a “Free As F***” T-shirt while making an apparent “OK” hand gesture associated with white nationalists. That image was not shown to the jury.
“The first time I saw it, or a version of it, was Chef Boyardee on a can of spaghetti,” Judge Schroeder said of the hand gesture in pretrial hearings in September. He ruled that such evidence would be too prejudicial.
This week, he chastised prosecutor Thomas Binger for his line of questioning into Mr Rittenhouse’s silence in the months after the shootings, and lashed out as Mr Binger questioned Mr Rittenhouse over evidence that was Judge Schroeder previously determined to be inadmissible in court.
Prosecutors have sought to point to video of Mr Rittenhouse saying he would shoot at shoplifters, taken 15 days before he was in Kenosha, in an attempt to undermine his claims of self-defence and that he would use deadly force to protect property.
“I thought your ruling was if the evidence in this case made that more relevant, you would admit it or at least consider its admittance,” Mr Binger said.
“Don’t get brazen with me,” Judge Schroeder shouted back.
On Thursday, Mr Binger mentioned that he was “under the court’s ire” from the previous day, as he tried to make the case that the defence was able to use witness testimony outside the court’s order, despite the judge reprimanding Mr Binger for trying to do the same.
“You know, I don’t want to talk about it,” Judge Schroeder replied.
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