The Language of Legal Cases

by The Cowl Editor on November 4, 2021


The Language of Legal Cases

Kyle Rittenhouse’s Case Causes Controversy Over Language Decision

by Julia McCoy ’22

In August 2020, Kyle Rittenhouse—a then seventeen year-old from Illinois—crossed state borders to Wisconsin, armed, and fatally shot Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber while also injuring Gaige Grosskreutz. Rittenhouse went to Wisconsin because of protests that were happening in Kenosha after Jacob Blake was shot and injured by the police. The city was uprooted after nights of protest. Streams of gun-owning citizens took it upon themselves to go to Kenosha and use their own force against the protesters. The teenage Rittenhouse was among these forces. He was seen carrying an AR-15 rifle that was eventually used to shoot the three men. Following the incident, Rittenhouse has been charged with first-degree reckless homicide, first-degree intentional homicide, and a few other similar charges, adding to six charges in total. 

But before his murder trial begins on Nov. 1, Rittenhouse is already receiving help from members of the justice system. 

This past week, while laying the “ground rules” for the trial, Judge Bruce Schroeder said that the words “victim” or “alleged victim” would be prohibited throughout the trial. Thus, the prosecutors will be forced to refer to these victims as “complaining witness” or “decedent” in the courtroom. National Public Radio explains that this is not the first time this has occurred; it is sometimes customary to prohibit the word “victim” because it presupposes the guilt of the defendant. Knowing the phrase “innocent until proven guilty,” there is some rationale behind why the term victim might lead to a more biased understanding of things in a courtroom. 

If neutral words were being promoted across the board and biased language was completely removed from the trial, that would be understandable. Clearly these men are victims of some crime, but right now, Rittenhouse is still claiming self-defense, so the language might hinder his argument. However, this decision does not seem to be inclined towards neutrality. No, the words “victim” and “alleged victim” cannot be used, but “arsonists,” “looters,” and “rioters” are fair game. Surely an unbiased proclivity is out of the question after this decision comes to light. 

How is it that the term “victim” carries enough weight to threaten the case against a defendant, but “looter” and “rioter” are not enough to persuade the minds of the jury in favor of the defendant? If an unbiased stance is being taken on one side of the trial, it must be done in the same way for the other. A trial that stands on these grounds is not nearly as just as one that either allows for all words to be used or sets the same standards of objectivity for both the prosecution and the defense. 

With these overtly biased terms afforded to them, Rittenhouse’s defense is essentially being set up for success. His lawyers can use these terms in their defense against men who are no longer alive because of Rittenhouse’s actions. 

Schroeder, in defense of his decision, said, “Let the evidence show what the evidence shows, and if the evidence shows that any or more than one of these people were engaged in arson, rioting, or looting — then I’m not going to tell the defense they can’t call them that.”

The prosecutor argued that even if the evidence did prove that these three men had engaged in looting or rioting, it was not these actions that immediately caused Rittenhouse to shoot them. As such, the use of those descriptive words is irrelevant and only helps to bolster the case of the defense. 

A fair trial cannot stand until the language of the court has some semblance of justice and equality among both sides. There is a double standard inherent in this decision that grants the defense with far more flexibility in their case. If nothing changes in this decision, the decision of the trial will always be coupled with the lingering questions of how the language may have affected the way it played out. 

If it is supposed to be justice for all, shouldn’t the language of the court reflect that?