MADISON, Wisconsin: A judge is set to decide on Friday (Jan 14) whether a Milwaukee man accused of ploughing his SUV through a Christmas parade, killing six people and injuring dozens more, will stand trial for murder.
Darrell Brooks Jr is set to appear in Waukesha County court before Judge Michael Bohren for a preliminary hearing. Such hearings, when the judge decides whether there’s enough evidence to hold a defendant for trial, are usually a formality, but can shed light on defence and prosecution strategies.
According to the criminal complaint, Brooks drove his mother's maroon Ford Escape into the parade in downtown Waukesha on Nov 21. He kept going despite police officers' demands to stop, with some officers telling investigators it appeared that the driver was trying to intentionally hit people, and “citizen witnesses” telling detectives that the SUV never slowed down.
Some of the people he hit flew up onto the hood of the Escape; at one point Brooks had to lean out the driver's window to steer because a person had landed on the windshield, according to the complaint. Six people were killed and dozens more injured.
District Attorney Susan Opper charged Brooks with six counts of first-degree intentional homicide a few days later. He would face life in prison if he's convicted on even one count.
Opper this week added scores of additional charges, including reckless endangerment, hit-and-run involving death, bail jumping and battery.
Any possible motives remain unknown. Court documents filed on Wednesday allege that Brooks beat the mother of his child minutes before driving into the parade because she refused to bail him out of jail after he was arrested for allegedly running her over with the same vehicle earlier in November.
Brooks had been arrested in neighbouring Milwaukee County in that alleged earlier incident. He walked out of jail on Nov 19, two days before the parade, after posting US$1,000 bail.
Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm, a Democrat, has taken intense criticism for his office recommending that bail be set so low for Brooks.
Chisholm told county officials in December that the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a backlog of cases in his office. An evaluation of the risk Brooks posed to the community never made it into his office’s computer system and went unseen, Chisholm said, and a young, overworked assistant prosecutor recommended US$1,000 bail for him so that she could move on to other cases.
A group of Milwaukee County taxpayers filed a complaint with Governor Tony Evers in December demanding that he remove Chisholm from office. An attorney the Evers administration hired to review the complaint concluded on Tuesday that the complaint suffers from technical legal deficiencies and isn’t valid. Evers refused to take any action against Chisholm, a fellow Democrat.
Chisholm has pushed for ending cash bail, saying that it’s not fair to poor defendants. He wants a new system in which only violent offenders are jailed until trial.
Brooks’ case has pushed Republican legislators to introduce bills that would require a US$10,000 minimum bond for people who have previously committed a felony or violent misdemeanour. They would also require the Wisconsin Department of Justice to create a “bond transparency report” detailing crime and bond conditions.
Evers and Democratic Attorney General Josh Kaul have said that they would support stricter bail policies.
Bohren is no stranger to high-profile cases. He presided over proceedings against two Waukesha girls accused of stabbing their classmate in 2014 to please a fictional horror character, Slender Man.