WAUKESHA, Wis. — Testimony before a jury began Thursday for the man accused of mowing down Christmas parade-goers last year, while he participated mostly from a separate courtroom, having been removed after numerous disruptions and an instance of taking his shirt off in court.
The prosecution gave its opening statement and two witnesses — an officer on duty during the parade and the friend of the defendant's ex-girlfriend — were questioned after hours of issues and extensive jury instructions.
Darrell Brooks Jr. is accused of 76 criminal counts, including six first-degree intentional homicide charges, in a case involving potentially dozens of witnesses. Two testified on Thursday. He's accused of driving his car through a parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, resulting in the death of six people and injuries of dozens of others.
Assistant Waukesha County District Attorney Zach Wittchow set the scene of the prosecution's case, focusing on the deaths and injuries that occurred on Main Street in the late afternoon hours of Nov. 21, 2021.
Brooks "hit the gas on his red Ford Escape and used it as a battering ram over and over again, striking men, women, and kids," Wittchow said.
The incident followed a violent argument between Brooks and his former girlfriend, who is also his child's mother, who was staying at a women's shelter in Waukesha, Wittchow said.
Wittchow said the prosecution is prepared to argue that Brooks intentionally caused the deaths of individuals and put dozens more at risk, countering any anticipated claims by Brooks that he had no such intent. Part of the focus will be the "deadliest" point in the parade, when Brooks' SUV ran into the Milwaukee Dancing Grannies, killing four members.
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Brooks deferred his opening statements to later in the proceedings.
Day begins with disruptions, delays
Brooks, who chose not to be represented by an attorney and has been sent out of the courtroom repeatedly in previous appearances, was admonished by Judge Jennifer Dorow for his repeated interruptions of court proceedings again Thursday before the jury entered the room.
No sooner had Dorow gaveled the trial into session Thursday than Brooks began a series of interruptions and protests. It erupted as Dorow tried to address why Brooks had chosen to wear his bright orange jail clothing, not the suit or other street clothes he has access to.
After more than a dozen interruptions, Brooks was again removed to a neighboring courtroom.
When he appeared on video from that courtroom 15 minutes later, his shirt was off, and his back facing the camera. Dorow explained that Brooks had also removed a shoe, appeared as if he wanted to throw it, and then threatened to break items.
Dorow warned that his conduct, if he continued the "chaos" in front of the jurors, would come at his own peril in his defense.
Despite his behavior, District Attorney Sue Opper said she believed Brooks was fit to stand trial, arguing his outbursts should be viewed as nothing more than a delay tactic, not a measure of his competency, and the judge said she agreed. Four examiners had examined Brooks and found no issues with his legal competency, Dorow said.
Brooks appeared remotely from the second courtroom for much of the day, including while questioning witnesses, before rejoining the main courtroom. Dorow later commended Brooks for his participation in cross-examination and his choice to come back to the room.
Witnesses testify about events leading to deaths
Kori Runkel, who said she was a friend of Brooks' ex-girlfriend detailed an altercation between Brooks and his former girlfriend that allegedly took place earlier in the day.
Runkel said she witnessed Brooks threatening his ex-girlfriend. Brooks challenged whether she had truly heard any threats from him.
"Yes, that you were yelling at her, and that you were going to kill her and get in the car," Runkel replied.
Brooks also questioned her credibility and Runkel conceded she was tipsy, but not drunk, at the time. On redirect, Wittchow rebuilt the basis for her testimony, that Runkel had spoken with an investigator about the threats she heard Brooks make.
Waukesha Police Sgt. David Wanner, who works in patrol and was on duty during the parade, testified that while the parade was underway, he saw a red SUV "traveling at a high rate of speed" and into the parade route. He estimated the vehicle was traveling 40 mph in a 25-mph zone on White Rock Avenue and into the parade route on Main Street.
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"As the driver passed, essentially about 6 feet in front of me, I could see the driver," said Wanner, who said he then got into his squad car.
"It was the most terrible thing I ever heard," he said, choking up and pausing, as he alluded to the cries emerging from victims.
In cross-examination, Brooks asked whether, in surveillance video, Wanner could see anyone trying to intentionally hit people. Wanner said he did not.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Waukesha Christmas parade testimony begins; Darrell Brooks removed