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‘Dancing Granny’ recounts performance group members’ deaths in Wisconsin parade crash trial

The trial’s ninth day featured moving testimony regarding the deceased victims’ autopsies and more testy sparring between the judge and the self-representing suspect.

WAUKESHA, Wis. (CN) — A member of a group of grandmothers that performs at local parades testified in court on Thursday about the deaths and injuries the group’s members suffered in a crash at a Waukesha, Wisconsin, Christmas parade last fall, and a medical examiner gave emotional testimony about the autopsy of an eight-year-old killed in the crash.

Laura Thein described the “sisterhood” between the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies in her testimony at the homicide trial of Darrell Brooks, who is accused of driving an SUV into a parade just before Thanksgiving last year, killing six people, including three members and one volunteer with the Dancing Grannies.

The group — membership of which requires only that one be a grandmother — was performing at the Christmas parade as part of its usual seasonal parade schedule, which involves costumed, choreographed dance routines in about 25 parades per year, according to their website.

Their pompom-heavy routine was interrupted that day, Thein said, by a commotion from behind her. All of a sudden, a red SUV drove near her and hit two members in front of her, one of whom initially survived but died later during surgery.

“It all happened so quick that I was still dancing,” Thein said.

The SUV, Thein said, came from the right and hit two people, veered to the middle of the road and hit two more, then veered to the left again and hit two more, driving at what she described as “a good clip.” The SUV never stopped after it hit anyone, she testified.

Thein said the incident and its aftermath left her in shock as she went from body to body to identify victims and check on them, her coat gathered to her against the November cold.

“All I seen were bodies,” she said. “I thought I was in a war.”

Dancing Grannies killed in the crash were Tamara Durand, 52; Virginia Sorenson, 79; and LeAnna Owen, 71. Wilhelm Hospel, 81, the husband of member Lola Hospel, was also killed while volunteering with the group that day. Jane Kulich, 52; and Jackson Sparks, 8, were the other two victims.

Brooks, 40, faces 76 felony and misdemeanor charges, including six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and five dozen counts of first-degree reckless endangerment. The Milwaukee native, who is representing himself, faces life imprisonment without parole if convicted of one of his homicide charges.

Perhaps the gravest moments of Brooks’ trial came after lunch Thursday when two medical examiners testified about autopsies of the deceased victims. Emotions ran particularly high during testimony on the autopsy of Sparks.

Dr. Amy Sheil, an associate medical examiner with the Waukesha County Medical Examiner’s office who performed the autopsies of Owen, Sorenson and Sparks, choked back tears as she described Sparks’ injuries, most of which were to his head.

The child ultimately died during surgery two days after he suffered blunt force trauma in the parade crash. His autopsy took a couple of extra days after that because he was an organ donor, Sheil said.

Deputy District Attorney Lesli Boese asked Sheil if Sparks' injuries were consistent with being hit by an SUV weighing around 3,300 pounds. The medical examiner said they were.

Brooks slumped his shoulders, hung his head and was barely audible during what seemed like a perfunctory cross-examination of Sheil. One of his only questions asked why the decision was made for Sparks to be an organ donor. The state objected, and the objection was sustained.

After his cross-examination, still seemingly overcome with emotion, Brooks asked Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow if he could have a few moments before proceeding. Dorow opted to give the entire court a 10-minute break.

Dr. Lynda Biedrzycki, the Waukesha County Medical Examiner, performed the autopsies of Durand, Kulich and Hospel. Like the other deceased victims, their injuries — including blunt force trauma and lacerations to the head, neck and spine, chest and internal organs — were consistent with being struck by an SUV, she said.

For Durand and Kulich, Biedrzycki testified that the women had toe injuries implying they had been knocked out of their shoes.

Judging by the kinetic energy required to cause such injuries, Biedrzycki said the speed of the SUV would have to have been “considerable.”

Two law enforcement officials have testified that their respective speed analysis and crash reconstruction investigations estimated Brooks’ SUV’s speed in the parade route was between 30 and 35 mph, above the 25 mph speed limit on that stretch of Main Street. Multiple witnesses have made similar estimates in their testimony.

At one point Thursday morning, Dorow cleared the court before an agitated Brooks launched into a nearly hourlong, uninterrupted screed about how his constitutional rights were being routinely violated by the court.

This included one of Brooks’ most common beefs with his trial: that his Sixth Amendment rights are being “trampled over” because the plaintiff — the state of Wisconsin — is an entity that cannot testify, so he cannot face his accuser, and the nature of his self-representation — which he opted for days ahead of trial — is unfair because he hasn’t had the same time and resources as the prosecution.

When given the chance to talk after Brooks’ statements, Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper disassembled his points and remarked that many of them are part of Brooks’ pervasive, debunked references to tenets of the legally dubious movement of sovereign citizenship.

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