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A look at Bruce Schroeder, the judge in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Kenosha, Wis., the country's deep divide over criminal justice and race looms over the trial of 18-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse. He admits that he killed two men and wounded another, all of them white. He says it was self-defense during chaotic protests last summer, sparked by the police shooting of a Black man. Presiding Judge Bruce Schroeder's recent rulings over evidence and language in this case have been controversial. NPR's Cheryl Corley has this profile.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: On the first day of the Rittenhouse trial, Judge Bruce Schroeder made it clear who was in charge of the courtroom as he, not attorneys, quickly began the process of questioning several people who had been called in for jury duty.

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BRUCE SCHROEDER: Is there any one of you who does not reside in Kenosha County? Oh. No. 5, what's up?

CORLEY: No. 5, a woman, said she had just moved to Chicago. She was dismissed. Many questioned by the judge and attorney said they were well aware of the protest and shootings, but ultimately the jury in this controversial case was selected in just one day. Justice Schroeder had said it would be. Usually that takes much longer.

JANINE GESKE: Judge Schroeder is an old-school, very strong judge.

CORLEY: Janine Geske, a retired Wisconsin Supreme Court justice who's also a law professor at Marquette University. She's taught evidence training to judges around the country. She's known Schroeder professionally for decades.

GESKE: He's got strong opinions on how he conducts his courtroom, sometimes differently than other people do. But, you know, he's knowledgeable, and he has a lot of experience. And you don't mess around in his courtroom.

CORLEY: Schroeder is 75 years old and currently the longest-serving Circuit Court judge in Wisconsin. He was appointed in 1983 by Wisconsin's governor at the time, and he's won elections ever since. He's presiding now over one of the most closely watched trials in the country. Kyle Rittenhouse stands accused of fatally shooting 26-year-old Anthony Huber and 36-year-old Joseph Rosenbaum. Twenty-seven-year-old Gaige Grosskreutz was wounded.

Rittenhouse was 17 at the time he traveled to Kenosha and says he went to protect local businesses during the unrest. He's become a favorite of the far right. His attorneys say he acted in self-defense the night of the shooting. Prosecutors call him a chaos tourist and a vigilante. Last week, there was widespread outrage when Judge Schroeder set ground rules forbidding prosecutors from referring to the men Rittenhouse shot as victims.

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SCHROEDER: This is a long-held opinion of mine, which very few judges, I guess, share with me. I think it's a loaded - the word victim is a loaded, loaded word.

CORLEY: It's a word, said Schroeder, that can prejudice the jury and should only be used when someone is convicted of a crime. University of Chicago law professor Judith Miller says the purpose of rules of evidence is to make sure a trial is fair. She says while attorneys regularly fight over language, she interpreted Judge Schroeder's evidentiary ruling differently than widely perceived. She says the language ban was confined to opening statement.

JUDITH MILLER: The way that this issue has been reported, it's as if there's a thumb on the scale in favor of white supremacists. But as I understand this case, that's just not what the judge is doing. This judge makes the same ruling in every single case.

CORLEY: Judge Schroeder also ruled the men killed or wounded in this case could be called rioters, looters and arsonists if the evidence showed that to be true. University of Wisconsin law professor Keith Findley calls that jarring and disparate treatment even if there may be legal justification for it.

KEITH FINDLEY: Those words could convey the message to the jury that somehow these people who were shot were deserving, were less worthy of protection of the law.

CORLEY: Activists and legal experts say they'll keep watch for any new evidence Schroeder may allow or deny in this polarizing case. The judge says he expects the trial to be complete in two weeks.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR'S "ALONE IN KYOTO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.