Trial begins for suspect who walked through Waukesha Christmas Parade; Defendant Must Represent Himself – NBC Chicago

Darrell Brooks’ trial was never going to be easy for the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha. Now it could hurt even more.

Brooks drove through the city’s Christmas parade in his Ford Escape last year, killing six people and injuring dozens more, prosecutors say. His trial opens Monday with jury selection and is expected to last at least a month.

Prosecutors lined up hundreds of videos of the incident and dozens of eyewitnesses to testify, promising a case that legal experts called overwhelming. But Brooks changed the playing field last week when Judge Jennifer Dorow ruled he could run again.

Brooks, who has no legal training, has already been disruptive and combative. What looked like a simple procedure could quickly turn into a painful chore for witnesses still grieving, legal observers have said.

“It’s really going to be a tough trial for the witnesses,” said Tom Grieve, a Madison-based criminal defense attorney. “You have a defendant who feels like he has nothing to lose. He’s going to try to make the biggest mess possible and force a fumble from the prosecutors or the judge and try to force the quashing of the trial or appeal.

According to a criminal complaint, Brooks, 40, got into a fight with his ex-girlfriend on Nov. 21, then sped up and drove down the parade route as police yelled at him to stop and shot him. Officers described the SUV as moving from side to side and running over people.

Among the dead were 8-year-old Jackson Sparks, who participated in the parade with his baseball team, and four members of a group calling themselves the Dancing Grannies, a group of grandmothers who danced in parades. Police captured Brooks after he abandoned the SUV and attempted to enter a nearby home, according to the complaint.

Brooks faces 77 counts, including six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and 61 counts of reckless endangerment. Each count of homicide carries a mandatory life sentence. Prosecutors attached a sentence modifier of use of a dangerous weapon to each endangerment charge, bringing the total maximum sentence for each of those charges to 17½ years.

District Attorney Susan Opper compiled more than 300 videos from the parade. His witness list is 32 pages; it includes Sparks’ parents, as well as dozens of police and FBI agents.

“There will be no doubt in the minds of this jury as to what happened, who was driving, how these people were injured or killed,” Opper told the judge in court last week.

The process won’t ease any of the sorrows David Durand is suffering over the loss of his wife, Tamara, one of the Dancing Grannies who was killed.

“The trial won’t bring her back,” he said in a phone interview.

Paul Bucher, a former Waukesha County district attorney, said Brooks’ inability to stop even as bodies bounced off his SUV will help Opper prove that Brooks intended to kill people, l key element of a first-degree intentional homicide count.

Brooks initially pleaded not guilty by reason of mental illness, which could have resulted in his being sentenced to a mental institution rather than prison. He withdrew that plea in September without explanation. Dorow said in court last week that psychologists found Brooks had a personality disorder but was mentally competent.

Brooks decided last week to fire his public defenders and asked Dorow to let him run again. Dorow warned that without a legal background, he faces long odds against Opper and his aides. But without a finding of mental incompetence, she said, she was legally bound to allow him to continue.

Brooks can be unstable in court. During a hearing in August, he fell asleep at the defense table, woke up, gave a tirade and got into a fight with an usher. During last week’s hearing, he repeatedly interrupted Dorow as she spoke. Dorow became so frustrated that she adjourned until the next day.

Phil Turner, a Chicago-based defense attorney and former federal prosecutor, said he expects Opper to call as many witnesses as possible to build a watertight case against Brooks.

If Brooks becomes so unruly that cross-examination fails, Dorow could simply end the interrogation, Turner said. That would give Brooks grounds for appeal, he said, “but there will be an appeal no matter what.”

Bucher, the former prosecutor, said he thinks Brooks knows he will likely go to jail for the rest of his life and just wants to waste everyone’s time in court. He warned that the trial will become painful for victims and other witnesses who will have to interact with Brooks during cross-examination.

“He plays games, and I think he likes that,” Bucher said. “It’s going to be terrible for victims and witnesses.”

NBC Chicago

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