WAUKESHA, Wis. (CN) — A contentious, daylong hearing in a Waukesha, Wisconsin, courtroom on Thursday ended with opening statements and testimony from two witnesses in the trial of a man accused of plowing his car into a local Christmas parade just before Thanksgiving last year, leaving six dead and dozens injured.
Proceedings at the Waukesha County Courthouse began the same as three recent hearings in the homicide case over the car crash tragedy in Waukesha last fall: with substantial disruption from suspect Darrell Brooks, 40, and his removal to an adjacent empty courtroom to join the hearing via livestream and communicate with the court intermittently when he was unmuted.
Brooks — whose legal name is Darrell Edward Brooks, Jr. — turned his trial on its head less than a week before jury selection by waiving his constitutional right to defense counsel, dispensing of the two lawyers who advocated for him for nearly a year and choosing to represent himself, at times obliquely referencing a legally dubious movement of sovereign citizenship.
Brooks is alleged to have driven his red Ford Escape down Main Street in Waukesha during its annual Christmas parade on the afternoon of Nov. 21, 2021, striking dozens of participants and spectators and killing six people, including a child.
The six deceased victims were Virginia Sorenson, 79; LeAnna Owen, 71; Tamara Durand, 52; Jane Kulich, 52; Wilhelm Hospel, 81; and Jackson Sparks, 8.
Brooks faces 76 felony and misdemeanor charges, including six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and 61 counts of first-degree reckless endangerment. The Milwaukee native faces life imprisonment without parole if convicted of one of his homicide charges.
At the top of Thursday, Brooks interrupted Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow no less than 10 times as she tried to cover preliminary housekeeping matters, resulting in Dorow having sheriff’s deputies remove him from the courtroom.
Minutes later, after a brief recess, Brooks was seen shirtless in the neighboring courtroom on the trial livestream. Dorow said he had taken off his shoe and threatened to throw it while struggling with officers escorting him. All day the suspect refused to change out of his orange jail uniform to wear a suit as he had at recent hearings.
Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper reiterated Thursday morning that despite Brooks’ “antics” and attempts to delay his prosecution, “at no time has anyone in this case had a competency concern” about the suspect, adding “it is the sole intent of Mr. Brooks to make a mockery of this process.”
After the 16 jurors entered, Dorow began reciting the lengthy jury instructions outlining Brooks’ charges. Brooks could be seen on the livestream during instructions, now fully clothed, holding up a blue card reading “objection,” and at one point sticking the card in the waist band of his pants.
Brooks was removed from the court due to his conduct again after lunch and spent most of the rest of the day separated from the jury in the other courtroom.
In opening remarks, Assistant District Attorney Zachary Wittchow laid out the contours of the state’s case against Brooks, tracking the suspect’s assault of his ex-girlfriend during an argument at a nearby school and his subsequent rage-fueled drive through the parade route, during which he increased his speed and ignored barricades, police and paradegoers in his way, intentionally using his car as a battering ram.
Wittchow set the scene of the parade — a festive autumn atmosphere, jubilant families and friends ringing in the holiday season, and children chasing candy in the streets.
“It sounds corny, but I think you’ll see from the videos there was a true sense of joy in the air. Darrell Brooks killed that joy. He replaced it with terror, trauma and death,” Wittchow said.
When the court offered him the chance to make his opening statements, Brooks, in hushed tones, deferred doing so until he makes his case later in his trial.
“I need a little more adequate time to make sure I go over the points I need to make,” Brooks said.
Before deciding to try his own case, Brooks and his defense attorneys Jeremy Perri and Anna Kees unsuccessfully attempted this summer to move his trial out of Waukesha after claiming that intense media scrutiny and the impassioned community response to the parade tragedy raised constitutional issues to a fair trial.
The suspect and his attorneys also changed his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity in June, but the plea was rescinded in late September around the time Brooks decided to waive his right to an attorney.
A Waukesha police sergeant testifying for the state spoke about the logistics, layout and police presence at the parade. Choking back tears, he then described the police response to the red Ford Escape’s charge through the parade route.
From the empty courtroom next door, Brooks cross-examined the officer about whether the specific video the jury saw showed the red SUV intentionally hitting anyone, which the officer said it did not. Opper, the district attorney, successfully objected multiple times when Brooks asked if the officer knew or recognized the plaintiff — the state of Wisconsin — in the court.
Testifying next was Kori Runkel, a friend of Brooks’ ex-girlfriend, Erika Patterson, whom she met while living at a Waukesha women’s shelter last year. Runkel described responding to a call from Patterson on the day of the parade crash saying Brooks was beating her, and about a shouting match and fight she had with Brooks after the couple’s altercation. She identified the red Ford Escape Brooks was driving and portrayed his menacing, violent behavior, including almost running over Patterson, before he drove off.
On cross-examination, Brooks challenged details of Runkel’s statement to police after the altercation and her ability to recognize him that day, in part because Patterson and Runkel had been drinking.
Brooks eventually was brought into the courtroom before the jury. Dorow said she felt he had earned that right with his more appropriate behavior — to finish his cross-examination.Follow @cnsjkelly
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