Kyle Rittenhouse shot his victims, but we can't call them that? What kind of justice system is this?

We talk a lot about the tenets of America's justice system: the right to due process and the presumption of innocence for all in criminal proceedings. We uphold the Constitution as the principle law of the land.

Until we don't.

Excuse my cynicism as I attempt to process Monday's ruling by a Wisconsin judge in the high-profile homicide case of Kyle Rittenhouse. The 18-year-old faces trial next week for shooting three people, two fatally, during a protest against police brutality last year in Kenosha, about 40 miles southeast of Milwaukee.

Kyle Rittenhouse, left, and other armed men claimed to be protecting property owners from arson and theft during protests Aug. 25, 2020, in Kenosha, Wis.
Kyle Rittenhouse, left, and other armed men claimed to be protecting property owners from arson and theft during protests Aug. 25, 2020, in Kenosha, Wis.

Shot dead but not a victim?

Kenosha County Circuit Judge Bruce Schroeder has decided those who were shot by Rittenhouse cannot be called "victims" until or if he is convicted of a crime.

Yet two of Rittenhouse's victims (yes, I'm calling them that) are dead. Gunned down with an AR-15-style rifle. But Schroeder will allow Joseph Rosenbaum, 36; Anthony Huber, 26; and the injured Gaige Grosskreutz, 26, to be referred to as looters, rioters and arsonists in open court.

Never mind that these victims – that word again – were never convicted (or even charged) of actual looting the night they were shot.

He was asleep in his car. Police woke him up and created a reason to kill him.

So tell me, what did they loot? Is there evidence to suggest they set things ablaze with criminal intent? Do videos exist showing them rioting?

How is it that they're not "victims" but they're "looters"?

Taking the most generous view of the judge's ruling – he called victim "a loaded, loaded word" – he was trying to ensure a fair trial. Where I stumble with that view is when I remember that fairness and justice aren't supposed to be one-sided.

As I see it, disallowing "victim" but permitting the use of loaded terms such as "looter" and "rioter" could sway a jury to feel sympathy toward Rittenhouse – his victims were up to no good, they were menacing criminals, they deserved it.

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This is our justice system

What a disappointing and enraging start to a trial that in many ways defines who we are, what we champion and to whom we are willing to give the benefit of the doubt.

Due process. The presumption of innocence.

This is our criminal justice system. This is why people kneel during the national anthem. This is why thousands of individuals took to the streets after the murder of George Floyd. This is why many Americans demand systemic reforms.

This is a travesty, and we are all the victims.

National columnist/deputy opinion editor Suzette Hackney is a member of USA TODAY’S Editorial Board. Contact her at or on Twitter: @suzyscribe

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kyle Rittenhouse victims aren't victims when trial starts in shooting