As judge faces backlash in Rittenhouse trial, defense attorney calls debate over words like ‘victim’ and ‘rioter’ common

MADISON, Wis. – The trial for Kyle Rittenhouse, a now 18-year-old accused of shooting three people, killing two, is proving contentious ahead of its official start next week.

Rittenhouse is charged with multiple counts of homicide after allegedly shooting three people in Kenosha during protests following the police shooting of Jacob Blake in 2020.

A judge’s decision to not allow the word “victim” to describe those shot but leaving the possibility open for the words “arsonist, looter and rioter” during the trial grabbed national attention this week.

“I understand why there’s this emotional reaction from everyone about that, particularly because the decedents here are, in fact, dead,” said Jessa Nicholson, a defense attorney in Madison.

Nicholson represented Rittenhouse for about nine days last year, she said, but spoke with News 3 Now solely from her perspective as a defense attorney in general.

She said this battle over semantics isn’t new to the courtroom.

“This really isn’t just …. some crazy, novel innovative legal argument,” Nicholson said. “It’s been around as long as I’ve practiced law, and I’ve practiced over 15 years.”

Presiding over the Rittenhouse trial, Judge Bruce Schroeder has a long-standing rule of not allowing prosecutors to refer to individuals as victims during a trial, calling it a loaded word.

Nicholson said she’s been in court with judges with similar policies.

“I would really urge people to hold off holding opinions on the judge for doing what I think is a pretty normal job,” she said. “This is a ruling well within the range of normal rulings of judges on the bench in Wisconsin, well within that range.”

Because of that policy of not using the word “victim,” prosecutors argue the judge is setting a double standard potentially allowing the use of the words “arsonist, looter and rioter,” calling them possibly more loaded. They’re also concerned those words paint those shot in a bad light, especially when two aren’t alive to defend themselves.

Judge Schroeder said he’ll see what the evidence shows. Possibly demonstrating that kind of behavior will play a role in the trial when Rittenhouse’s attorneys will likely argue self-defense or defense of others and property.

Protesters have called for Judge Schroeder to step down for his handling of the case in the past, including denying requests to raise Rittenhouse’s bail and jail him because he didn’t register his real address in court.

Rittenhouse, who was 17 at the time of the shootings, claims he was acting in self-defense after he crossed state lines to protect businesses during the unrest.

Video circulated on social media shows Rittenhouse carrying a rifle and shooting three people: Joseph Rosenbaum, Anthony Huber and Gaige Grosskreutz. Rosenbaum and Huber died, while Grosskreutz survived.

Though Nicholson said words do matter, she thinks other parts of this trial will matter more.

“I suspect it’s going to be a high spirited debate, lots of argument, lots of sidebars,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting to see.”