WAUKESHA, Wis. (CN) — Lawyers for the suspect in the November 2021 Christmas parade car crash in Waukesha, Wisconsin, announced Monday their client plans to plead not guilty by reason of mental disease or defect.
At his arraignment in March, Darrell Brooks, 40, pleaded not guilty to the more than six dozen felony and misdemeanor charges he faces for allegedly killing six and injuring dozens when he plowed his car into the Christmas parade held annually in Waukesha.
But at the close of a three-hour hearing in Waukesha County Circuit Court on Monday, Jeremy Perri, one of Brooks’ defense attorneys, mentioned that his client plans to change his plea to include the mental defect aspect. The prosecution, led by Waukesha County District Attorney Susan Opper, did not object, and arrangements were begun to get Brooks evaluated by a court-approved doctor once his plea change is official.
Most of Monday’s hearing was dedicated to Brooks’ bid not to be tried in Waukesha. The suspect’s defense team filed a motion one day before his arraignment to move their client’s case out of the Milwaukee suburb 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.
Perri reiterated these arguments on Monday, saying the Christmas parade tragedy has become more than just a high-profile case for local residents but something they are confronted with daily, including through community events, fundraisers, signs and functions of groups like Waukesha Strong, an entity whose Facebook group has around 6,600 members.
Opper offered that rigorous voir dire and other screening processes are enough to empanel an impartial 16-member jury out of the more than 1,500 people that responded to a jury questionnaire sent out earlier this year. The prosecutor said “there hasn’t been anything unfair or prejudicial to Mr. Brooks overall in the community’s response,” to the crash.
Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent—including Sheppard v. Maxwell, a case involving the right to a fair trial balanced amid intense media coverage, and the high court’s recent decision in the Boston Marathon bombing case that in part affirmed how the trial court vetted jurors—as well as state court case law, Waukesha County Circuit Court Judge Jennifer Dorow found moving Brooks’ trial out of Waukesha was unnecessary to give him a fair trial and denied his motion.
Regarding the media scrutiny of Brooks’ case, Dorow found “in general, the nature of the publicity has been factual and objective…and not an attempt to influence public opinion on the guilt or innocence of Mr. Brooks.” Jurors “need not be ignorant or a blank slate” in order to be impartial, Dorow said, and she assured that further screening processes will be adequate to protect Brooks’ constitutional rights at his trial, which is scheduled to begin on Oct. 3.
Dorow partially granted the defense’s motion to sequester the jury for their client’s trial. She cited how the jury was handled in the politically charged trial of Kyle Rittenhouse—jurors then were kept anonymous to the public, securely transported to and from court daily, and sequestered at the courthouse during court days and allowed to go home at the end of the day—as a successful model upon which to base Brooks’ days in court.
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, 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.
Brooks’ charges include the five counts of first-degree intentional homicide in the Waukesha County District Attorney’s offices’ initial criminal complaint, a sixth homicide for Sparks added later, and more than 70 other counts in an amended complaint.
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. Reported injuries to victims range from road rash to skull fractures and other blunt force trauma.
Brooks’ attorneys have posited that he may have been unable to leave the parade route because it was blocked off, and he may have been swerving to avoid hitting people, not intentionally hit them. Brooks allegedly told officers after his capture that he didn’t mean to kill anybody.
The suspect also faces 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 before the crash.
Brooks is accused of felony witness intimidation and bail jumping in a Milwaukee County Circuit Court complaint filed in December, which says 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.
Brooks faces life imprisonment without parole if convicted of one of the homicide charges he faces. He remains imprisoned at the Waukesha County Jail on $5 million bail ahead of his trial.
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