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Wisconsin parade crash suspect pleads not guilty

One day before his arraignment, lawyers for the suspect asked for his trial to be moved out of Waukesha County due to intense community passion and media coverage over the case.

WAUKESHA, Wis. (CN) — The man accused of killing six people and injuring dozens when he plowed his car into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, in November pleaded not guilty on Friday to the more than six dozen felony charges against him.

Darrell Brooks, 39, appeared before Waukesha County Court Commissioner Kevin Costello for his brief arraignment hearing alongside defense attorneys Jeremy Perri and Anna Kees, who waived Brooks’ right to hear his 77 felony charges read to him and entered a plea of not guilty on behalf of their client.

The day before Brooks’ arraignment, Perri and Kees filed a motion asking to move their client’s case out of Waukesha due to widespread media coverage, impassioned community response, large numbers of victims and first-hand witnesses, social media buzz and other factors surrounding the case that raise constitutional issues for Brooks.

“An impartial trial cannot be held in Waukesha County,” the attorneys said in their motion. “The effects of this incident on the Waukesha community, and its collective response, are so profound and pervasive that venue must be changed to ensure that Darrell Brooks receives an impartial jury.”

Perri and Kees asked for any jury empaneled for Brooks’ trial to be sequestered due to the anticipated intensity of the media coverage of his trial. The defense attorneys also requested a judicial substitution on Feb. 10, which was approved by the court. Court records show Brooks’ case is now assigned to Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow.

Brooks is alleged to have driven his red Ford Escape down Main Street in Waukesha during the Milwaukee suburb’s annual Christmas parade on the afternoon of Nov. 21, striking dozens of participants and spectators and killing six people, including a child.

The six deceased victims were identified as Virginia Sorenson, 79; LeAnna Owen, 71; Tamara Durand, 52; Jane Kulich, 52; Wilhelm Hospel, 81; and Jackson Sparks, 8.

In addition to the five counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the Waukesha County District Attorney’s office’s initial criminal complaint, Brooks now faces a sixth homicide charge for Sparks added later, as well as 71 other charges in an amended complaint.

The latest charges include 61 counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety, one for each victim Brooks allegedly injured, hit-and-run involving death counts for each of the six deceased victims, and felony bail jumping and battery domestic abuse charges stemming from an alleged altercation he had with his girlfriend—whom he was barred from contacting under bail conditions in a Milwaukee felony case—at a park near the parade route shortly before the crash.

Police witnesses have testified that Brooks ignored officers shouting at him to stop as he slowly drove through the parade staging area, then increased speed through the parade route while sometimes driving in a “zigzagging motion” as if intentionally aiming for people.

Victims struck by the SUV, who in many cases had their backs turned and did not see it coming, suffered injuries ranging from road rash to skull fractures and other severe blunt force trauma, a detective said.

Brooks’ attorneys have posited that the suspect may have been unable to leave the parade route because it was blocked off, and he may have been swerving in order to avoid hitting people, not intentionally hit them. Brooks allegedly told officers after his capture that he didn’t mean to kill anybody.

Brooks was freed on $1,000 cash bail two weeks before the parade crash in connection with one of three open felony cases he has in Milwaukee County Circuit Court. After Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, faced searing criticism for Brooks’ release on such low bail, the bond was raised to $200,000 four weeks after the crash.

Critics of Chisholm, mostly Republicans, called for his ouster for overseeing Brooks’ release, but Democratic Governor Tony Evers declined to remove him from office, saying that decision should be left to voters. Chisholm has admitted Brooks’ bail in that case was “inappropriately low” and said an internal review of the bail recommendation is underway.

Brooks is accused of felony witness intimidation and bail jumping in a recent Milwaukee County Circuit Court complaint filed in December. Prosecutors say he threatened his girlfriend with retribution if she did not retract statements she made to police in a different felony case in which he is charged with intentionally running her over with his car—the same car he allegedly used in the parade crash.

He will next appear in court in Waukesha the morning of March 11 for a hearing before Judge Dorow, which Costello said would mainly address scheduling matters for his case moving forward. The suspect is being held at the Waukesha County Jail on $5 million bond ahead of his trial.

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