Brooks changes plea to not guilty by reason of mental defect in Waukesha parade case; change of venue denied

Judge rules impartial jury can be found among hundreds in prospective jury pool for Waukesha parade trial

WAUKESHA, Wis. — The man accused of driving an SUV into a parade last November is changing his plea to not guilty by reason of insanity or mental defect, his attorneys said Monday after a judge denied their motion to move his trial out of Waukesha County.

A mental health evaluation will be scheduled for Darrell Brooks, who faces more than 80 charges stemming from last year’s Waukesha Christmas parade, during which he allegedly drove an SUV into a crowd of people. Six people died and dozens of others were injured.

His defense had also sought a change of venue for his upcoming trial, claiming Brooks would not be able to get a fair trial with an impartial jury in Waukesha County due to media coverage and public opinion of the incident. Prosecutors countered that surveys sent to potential jurors still found hundreds of people who would be qualified and impartial if they were chosen for the jury, even after eliminating people who were personally affected by the tragedy or donated to causes related to it.

In her ruling, Judge Jennifer Dorow cited several cases of precedent that determined notoriety and local media coverage do not mean a trial is unfair, adding that the voir dire process in jury selection should also ensure the trial will have an impartial jury.

“In general, coverage has been objective and factual,” Judge Dorow said of the media coverage of the incident and the court proceedings that have followed, saying the coverage alone does not create a presumption of guilt or an attempt to influence public opinion.

In explaining why she was not allowing a change of venue, Judge Dorow noted only two counties — Milwaukee and Dane — have higher populations and larger jury pools than Waukesha County, and both are experiencing trial backlogs that would not make them suitable counties in which to hold Brooks’ trial.

Judge Dorow also said the court will take great care in ensuring Brooks’ right to a fair trial is not violated in Waukesha County. Part of that includes an expanded jury pool — with more than 1,560 people initially identified as qualified to be a juror in the case and receiving a 115-question, 30-page questionnaire asking what they know about the case, whether they have formed an opinion on Brooks’ guilt or innocence and their familiarity with victims and families associated with the case.

In reviewing the responses, the court found 287 of the prospective jurors to be “likely inadmissible” and 156 prospective jurors to be “clearly inadmissible.” Even excluding those respondents and others cited by the defense, Judge Dorow said there would still be hundreds of people in the possible juror pool.

“The case law makes clear that knowledge and familiarity do not alone cause a juror to be biased or prejudiced,” Judge Dorow said.

There will be a two-day “questionnaire conference” later this summer in which both the prosecution and the defense will have an unlimited number of “strikes” to cross prospective jurors off the list based on their responses to the questionnaire. Judge Dorow says she will take as long as needed to find a jury for the trial.

Brooks faces more than 80 charges — including six counts of first-degree intentional homicide — after he allegedly drove a vehicle into the middle of Waukesha’s annual Christmas parade, killing six people and injuring dozens of others, including several elderly people and children.

Brooks’ ex-girlfriend told police he hit her and was involved in an argument moments before speeding off in the direction of the parade on the night of the incident. Brooks had been released days before the incident on a $1,000 bond in another domestic violence case.

RELATED: Complaint adds new details about domestic incident moments before parade tragedy

According to the criminal complaint in the case, several officers told Brooks to stop before he allegedly drove into the parade route. Police say there would have been multiple opportunities for somebody who accidentally drove into the route to exit safely. Instead, the complaint alleges Brooks sped up as he approached people in the parade.

Before asking for a change of venue, Brooks’ defense had asked earlier this year to delay the trial into next year, citing the amount of evidence to go through in the case. That request was also denied by the judge.

Brooks’ trial is scheduled to begin on October 3 and take much of the month to complete.