By Eric Levenson and Rebekah Riess, CNN
The man accused of intentionally driving his SUV through a crowd of Christmas parade attendees in Waukesha, Wisconsin, last year, killing six people and wounding dozens more, represented himself as court proceedings began at his homicide trial Thursday amid concerns over his mental health.
Darrell E. Brooks, 40, was identified as the driver of a red SUV who plowed into a crowd of people celebrating the city’s Christmas parade on November 21, 2021, turning a joyous afternoon into a massacre.
Brooks had been released from jail less than two weeks prior in a domestic abuse case, on a $1,000 bail that prosecutors recommended and have since said was “inappropriately low.” In that case, he allegedly ran over a woman who said she’s the mother of his child, according to court documents.
Brooks is charged with six counts of intentional homicide with the use of a dangerous weapon, and more than 60 counts of first-degree recklessly endangering safety and six counts of fatal hit and run, according to an amended complaint.
The trial is particularly unusual because Brooks is representing himself in court and has repeatedly disrupted the court proceedings with defiant and outlandish behavior.
Jury selection began Monday and quickly devolved into farce as Brooks repeatedly interrupted the judge, argued with her rulings and stated he did not have enough time to prepare, CNN affiliate WISN reported. Judge Jennifer Dorow ordered Brooks moved to a separate courtroom to participate remotely and kept him muted until it was his turn to speak.
“This court is on day one, it is 2:15 p.m., this court within five minutes of starting court this morning had to remove Mr. Brooks based upon his interruptions at that time,” Dorow said, according to WISN.
In the other courtroom, Brooks could be seen speaking to himself and making hand gestures while on mute. At one point, he put his head on the table and put the top of his suit jacket over his head.
His courtroom interruptions continued on Thursday. Judge Dorow again ordered Brooks removed from the courtroom to an adjacent room, and Brooks could then be seen on video with his shirt off and his back to the camera. Brooks was later allowed to return to the main courtroom.
Prosecutors rejected the idea that Brooks is mentally incompetent and said his interruptions and defiant actions were simply attempts to disrupt the proceedings.
“These are deliberate actions on his part as we get closer and closer and closer to actually presenting this case to a jury, that he is attempting to derail these proceedings and avoid the inevitable,” the prosecution said.
Judge Dorow agreed, saying she believed “it is the sole intent of Mr. Brooks to make a mockery of this process.”
Prosecutor Zachary A. Wittchow started his opening statement by described how the Christmas parade started out as a joyful holiday celebration for thousands of people watching on the street.
“I think you’ll see from the videos there was a true sense of joy in the air,” Wittchow told the jury. “Darrell Brooks killed that joy. He replaced it with terror, trauma and death,” he continued.
“I will be deferring at this time your honor,” Brooks said with a chuckle, still wearing his orange jail uniform. “I need a little more adequate time to make sure I go over the points I need to make,” Brooks continued.
Testimony began Thursday evening with a Waukesha police officer and a parade witness, who was also Brooks’ girlfriend on the day of the attack.
At the conclusion of testimony, Judge Dorow noted that Brooks was on good behavior. “I really appreciate that you came back over and that you’ve been following the rules,” the judge said.
“Thank you for giving me a chance to come back in,” Brooks responded. “I appreciate what you said.”
Brooks previously pleaded not guilty by insanity, but his public defenders withdrew the insanity plea in September. The attorneys later filed a motion to withdraw from the case, and the judge ruled to allow Brooks to represent himself at trial.
However, his mother, Dawn Woods, wrote to the judge and spoke to CNN affiliate WTMJ about her concerns that her son was not stable enough to defend himself. “I hate to say this,” Woods told the affiliate. “You’re going to see manic, full-blown.”
Witnesses to relive violence of parade
The trial will feature a series of witnesses who will be expected to recount the violence and chaos of the day of the attack.
The victims included an 8-year-old boy and three of Milwaukee’s “Dancing Grannies” group that marched in the parade.
A video of the parade recorded by Angela O’Boyle, who was watching from her fifth-story apartment balcony, shows the SUV hitting an individual in a marching band. The vehicle then continued forward, hitting and running over others in the band and crowd before driving away.
“It hit at least two people right away and rolled over them. And then continued down the road to People’s Park which is at the end of the block — and then kept going, it didn’t stop,” O’Boyle told CNN.
One officer described the vehicle as driving in a zig-zag-like pattern, the complaint states.
Angelito Tenorio, another witness, said at the time the scene was “absolutely chaotic.”
“Nobody knew if this was an attack or if this was an accident or if it was a deliberate attack on the people of the parade,” he said in an interview with CNN. “People just started fleeing, running away from the scene, leaving behind their belongings, grabbing their children, calling, screaming, looking for their loved ones.
“And when the crowd cleared out, that’s when it looked like I saw people, who appeared to be lying in the middle of the street, lying still, lying lifeless.”
After he allegedly ran over people and fled the scene, Brooks went to a stranger’s home, asked for help and said he was homeless, a Waukesha resident said. Police eventually arrived to the home and took Brooks into custody.
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CNN’s Bill Kirkos, Andy Rose and Kara Devlin contributed to this report.