The trial of Darrell Brooks was never going to be an easy one for the Waukesha suburb of Milwaukee. Now it can hurt even more.
Brooks plowed through the city’s Christmas parade last year in his Ford Escape, which killed six people and injured dozens of others, prosecutors say. His trial begins Monday with jury selection and is expected to last at least a month.
Prosecutors have lined up hundreds of videos of the incident and dozens of eyewitnesses to testify, pledging a case that legal experts have called overwhelming. But Brooks changed the playing field last week when Judge Jennifer Dorow ruled he could represent himself.
Brooks, who has no legal training, has already shown himself to be disruptive and combative. What seemed like a straight-forward procedure could quickly degenerate into a painful struggle for still-grieving witnesses, legal observers said.
“It’s going to be a really challenging trial for the witnesses,” said Tom Grieve, a Madison criminal defense attorney. “You have a defendant who feels he has nothing to lose. He is going to try to make as big a mess as possible and force a fumble by the prosecutors or judge and try to force a mistrial or appeal.”
According to an indictment, 40-year-old Brooks got into an argument with his ex-girlfriend on Nov. 21, then ran off and drove onto the parade route, despite police yelling at him to stop and shoot him. Police officers described the SUV as moving back and forth and driving over people.
The dead included 8-year-old Jackson Sparks, who joined his baseball team in the parade, and four members of a group calling itself the Dancing Grannies, a group of grandmothers who dance in parades. Police arrested Brooks after he abandoned the SUV and attempted to enter a nearby home, the complaint said.
Brooks faces 77 charges, including six counts of first-degree intentional manslaughter and 61 counts of reckless endangering. Any number of murders carries a mandatory life sentence. Prosecutors added a dangerous weapon modifier to each threat count, bringing the total maximum sentence for each of those charges to 17 1/2 years.
District Attorney Susan Opper has compiled more than 300 videos of the parade. Her witness list is 32 pages long; it includes Sparks’ parents, as well as dozens of police officers and FBI agents.
“There will be no doubt in 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 trial will not soften any of the grief David Durand is suffering over the loss of his wife, Tamara, one of the dancing grandmothers who was murdered.
“The trial will not bring her back,” he said in a telephone interview.
Paul Bucher, a former Waukesha County district attorney, said Brooks’s failure to stop, even as the bodies bounced off his SUV, will help Opper prove Brooks intended to kill people, the key element in a first degree intentional homicide.
Brooks initially pleaded not guilty due to mental illness, which could have resulted in him being sentenced to a mental institution instead of jail time. He withdrew that plea in September without explanation. Dorow said in court last week that psychologists found Brooks has a personality disorder, but is mentally competent.
Brooks moved last week to fire his public defenders and asked Dorow to let him represent himself. Dorow warned that without legal training, he has great chances against Opper and her aides. But without a finding of mental incompetence, she said, she was required by law to let him continue.
Brooks can be fleeting in court. During an August hearing, he fell asleep at the defense table, woke up, went on a diatribe and got into an argument with a bailiff. During last week’s hearing, he repeatedly interrupted Dorow as she spoke. Dorow became so frustrated that she postponed it until the next day.
Phil Turner, a Chicago 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-examinations fail, Dorow can simply end the interrogation, Turner said. That would give Brooks ground for an appeal, he said, “but an appeal will be filed anyway.”
Bucher, the former prosecutor, said he thinks Brooks knows he’s probably going to jail for the rest of his life and that he just wants to waste everyone’s time in court. He warned that the trial will be painful for victims and other witnesses who must communicate with Brooks during cross-examination.
“He plays games, and I think he enjoys it,” Bucher said. “It will be terrible for the victims and the witnesses.”
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