Under the glare of dueling national spotlights, judges presiding over the Kyle Rittenhouse homicide trial in Wisconsin and the case against three white Georgia men in the death of Ahmaud Arbery have both displayed their ire as they’ve struggled to maintain fairness in the courtroom.
A display of frustration boiled over from the bench in the Rittenhouse case Wednesday when a visibly angered Judge Bruce Schroeder lambasted the lead prosecutor, accusing him of low-blow antics he said bordered on a “grave constitutional violation.”
Brian Buckmire, a New York public defender and ABC News contributor, said both judges have taken actions to maintain fairness in the proceedings and shield the juries from hearing anything unrelated to the evidence they’ve allowed in the two high-profile cases, despite some of the attorneys seeming to posture for the cameras in the courtroom.
“Judges are very protective of the jury, sometimes even considering it their jury,” said Buckmire, who is also an anchor for the Law & Crime Network. “You always want the jury to be pristine, to only make decisions based on the evidence and not because a judge scolded a lawyer or vice versa.”
The latest exhibit of exasperation coming from the bench occurred during the testimony of 18-year-old Rittenhouse, who claimed he shot three men, two fatally, in self-defense during a 2020 protest in Kenosha, Wisconsin.
Shortly after prosecutor Thomas Binger began his cross-examination of Rittenhouse, Schroeder had the jury marched out of the courtroom before he ripped the state’s attorney for asking the teenager about his silence about the shootings prior to taking the witness stand.
Schroeder warned Binger that he was edging toward a “grave constitutional violation” by ignoring Rittenhouse’s right to remain silent in front of the jury.
“You’re right on the borderline, and you may be over it,” Schroeder said, at times shouting at Binger. “But it better stop. This is not permitted.”
After Binger resumed the questioning, he prompted another verbal lashing from Schroeder by beginning to broach evidence the judge had ruled inadmissible. Schroeder had the jury exit the courtroom again before he lit into Binger, and defense attorney Mark Richards accused the prosecutor of trying to provoke a mistrial.
Binger claimed he thought Schroeder had left the “door open” for him to question Rittenhouse about the inadmissible evidence and during a subsequent hearing told the judge he was “acting in good faith.”
“Good faith! I don’t believe you,” Schroeder told Binger.
In the Arbery case, Judge Timothy Walmsley had the jury exit the Brunswick, Georgia, courtroom on Tuesday so the panel wouldn’t hear his choice words for one of the defense attorneys.
Jason Sheffield, a lawyer for defendant Travis McMichael, garnered Walmsley’s wrath by provoking multiple objections from prosecutor Linda Dunikoski and by apparently trying to argue with the judge.
Walmsley stopped Sheffield’s questioning after he asked Glynn County Detective Parker Marcy several times about why he went to a house under construction in the Satilla Shores neighborhood near Brunswick, a site where security video footage had recorded Arbery entering several times and where he was reportedly seen by a neighbor leaving on the day he was killed.
“By going there, you were looking to determine or trying to understand that somebody may have entered that dwelling with the intent to take something?” Sheffield asked, soliciting an objection from Dunikoski that the defense was trying to testify for the witness during the cross-examination.
Walmsley sustained the objection, and when Sheffield appeared to try to argue with him, he sent the jury out of the courtroom.
“I don’t care whether you like my rulings or not, or like me or not, but in this court, it’s axiomatic that counsel show at least respect for what the court is doing,” Walmsley said. “And what you just did shows a lack of respect for what the court is trying to do here, which is to create an environment which is fair to all parties.”
Walmsley went on, saying, “I would suggest that you take a moment to think about that. I’m going to step off the bench because I found that … I’ll just call it rude.”
By then, Walmsley seemed frustrated by other behavior by Sheffield, noting the attorney’s use of a large flipchart in which he pointed to the word “break-in” during his cross-examination of Marcy. Walmsley told Sheffield his “jumping up and moving the board” was distracting to the jury.
“I would suggest that you taper some of that very quickly, because it will not be tolerated in this court,” Walmsley said.
A more subdued Sheffield returned from the recess and finished his questioning of Marcy.
The courtroom fireworks in the Rittenhouse case came about a week after a juror unwittingly tested Schroeder’s patience.
Schroeder booted a juror on the third day of the trial after the panelist acknowledged that he told a tasteless joke to a deputy about Jacob Blake, a 29-year-old Black man who was shot and paralyzed by a Kenosha police officer. The shooting prompted protests in Kenosha that devolved into looting, rioting and eventually the shootings that Rittenhouse committed.
Schroeder then launched into a lengthy explanation to the attorneys in the case that the trial is being televised nationwide, and he noted that he heard one TV news commentator saying that “‘this is the most divisive case in the country today.'”
“So, anything that undermines public confidence in what happens here is very important,” Schroeder said sternly. “It’s important for this town, it’s important for this country to have people have confidence in the result of this trial.”