WAUKESHA, Wis. — The man police say drove an SUV into a Christmas parade crowd last year killing six people is representing himself in court, a move that experts say could slow down nearly every step of the process and create chaos in the courtroom for victims who are still grieving .
Darrell Brooks Jr., 40, is accused of 76 criminal counts, including six charges of first-degree intentional homicide, tied to the Waukesha Christmas Parade tragedy in November 2021.
Jury selection began Monday after near-constant interruptions from Brooks, who has no legal training. Waukesha County Circuit Judge Jennifer Dorow removed Brooks from the courtroom repeatedly and warned him that if the interruptions continued, she would appoint an attorney for him to keep the trial on track.
“If your intention is to disrupt these proceedings … or make a mockery of this court, I cannot tolerate that,” Dorow told Brooks during a spate of interruptions.
After Brooks was removed to a separate courtroom Tuesday to participate by video due to his disruptions, a 16 jurors – 12 plus four alternates – were selected Tuesday evening. The testimony portion of the trial is set to begin Thursday.
Brooks’ request to represent himself and his decision weeks earlier to withdraw his insanity defense plea raised questions about Brooks’ strategy and whether he intended to delay the trial. The proceedings were likely to involve dozens of witnesses over several weeks.
“It’s really going to be a challenging trial for the witnesses,” said Tom Grieve, a criminal defense attorney based in Madison. “You have a defendant who feels like he has nothing to lose. He’s 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 build an appeal.”
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ABOUT DARRELL BROOKS: Suspect was charged with crimes 10 times since 1999
Darrell Brooks representing himself in court could lead to delays
The proceedings have already been delayed by a number of Brooks’ outbursts. During a hearing in August, he fell asleep at the defense table, woke up, went on a tirade and scuffled with a bailiff. At last week’s hearing, he repeatedly interrupted Dorow as she spoke. Dorow became so frustrated that she adjourned until the next day.
If Brooks gets so unruly that cross-examinations break down, Dorow could simply end the questioning, said Phil Turner, a Chicago-based defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. That would give Brooks grounds for an appeal, he said, “but there’s going to be an appeal, no matter what.”
There has been no indication about how long it could take Brooks to argue his defense. Prior to his decision to waive his right to an attorney, it appeared the trial would not require the full four weeks.
Waukesha County District Attorney Sue Opper previously said she anticipates prosecutors will take between five and seven days to present their case.
A defendant representing himself is not unprecedented and carries certain legal ramifications, said Waukesha defense attorney Anthony Cotton, who is not involved in the case. Since Brooks is almost guaranteed to be convicted and sentenced to life, it might be a decent strategy to defend himself and make the trial a chaotic circus – and hope some appealable issues emerge.
Judges generally despise holding trials with non-lawyers representing themselves. Cotton expected Judge Dorow to examine Brooks’ request closely to make sure he was competent and that the request is not solely an attempt to delay the trial or force a mistrial once it starts.
But denying a defendant his right to represent himself, however, can also backfire.
In a high-profile case from 2006 in Waukesha, the judge denied Sean M. Young’s request to stand trial without a lawyer – who had been Cotton. The judge allowed Young to proceed with Cotton as stand-by counsel but later decided the approach wasn’t working and denied Young’s active participation as well as his request to make his own closing argument.
Young, who ultimately stopped communicating with Cotton throughout the trial, was convicted. The Court of Appeals later granted Young a new trial on the basis that he had wrongly been denied his constitutional right to represent himself.
Paul Bucher, a former Waukesha County district attorney, warned that the trial will become painful for victims and other witnesses who will have to interact with Brooks during cross-examination.
“He’s playing games, and I think he enjoys it,” Bucher said. “… It’s going to be terrible for the victims and the witnesses.”
The judge in the Brooks case has denied many of his requests
Brooks faces a long list of charges to defend plus mounting roadblocks resulting from recent decisions by Dorow.
Brooks initially was charged Nov. 23, 2021, with six counts of first-degree intentional homicide. But soon afterwards, dozens of charges were added, most notably 61 counts of recklessly endangering safety by use of a dangerous weapon tied to those injured along the parade route.
In various court actions since the criminal complaint was amended in January, Brooks and his attorneys had sought: a change in venue; to suppress statements made to investigators after the incident; to have the case dismissed outright because of a jail search that they claimed violated his attorney-client privilege; and competency exams to support his special plea of not guilty by reason of mental illness or defect.
Dorow, in separate decisions, denied most of those key points. The sealed reports of three doctors who examined Brooks for mental competence likely contributed to his decision to withdraw his insanity defense.
Contributing: The Associated Press
Contact Jim Riccioli on Twitter at @jariccioli.