Prosecutors in Wisconsin on Tuesday charged a man with intentional homicide in the deaths of five people who were killed when an SUV was driven into a Christmas parade that also left 62 people injured, including many children.
Prosecutors say a sixth person, a child, has died and more charges are pending.
Darrell Brooks Jr. was charged with five counts of intentional homicide in the crash Sunday in Waukesha, a Milwaukee suburb. Conviction on first-degree intentional homicide carries a mandatory life sentence, Wisconsin’s stiffest penalty.
Brooks made his initial appearance in court Tuesday. He could be heard crying during the proceeding, leaning over with his head nearly in his lap, with his attorney resting a hand on his back.
The city’s livestream video and bystander video captured the chaotic scene when an SUV sped along the parade route and then into the crowd. Several of those injured remain in critical condition.
According to the criminal complaint, witnesses told police that the vehicle “appeared to be intentionally moving side to side,” with no attempt to slow down or stop as it struck multiple people and sent bodies and objects flying.
The criminal complaint said a police officer shot at the vehicle, striking it three times, and a detective stepped in front of Brooks’ vehicle and pounded on the hood, shouting “Stop,” several times, but Brooks drove past him. The complaint said the detective was wearing police insignia and a neon orange safety vest.
Accused was free on bail
Brooks had been free on $1,000 bail for a case in Milwaukee County earlier this month in which he’s been accused of intentionally striking a woman with his car. Prosecutors said they’re investigating their bail recommendation in that case, calling it inappropriately low.
Julius Kim, a defence attorney and former assistant prosecutor, said bail could easily have been set more than twice as high.
“He was accused of running over the mother of his kid, and to put it at $1,000 strikes me as low,” Kim said. “It could have been an inexperienced attorney who happened to be reviewing cases that day.”
Waukesha police Chief Dan Thompson said Brooks, 39, was leaving the scene of a domestic dispute that had taken place just minutes earlier when he drove into the parade route.
Brooks has been charged with crimes more than a dozen times since 1999 and had two outstanding cases against him at the time of the parade disaster. That included resisting or obstructing an officer, reckless endangering, disorderly conduct, bail jumping and battery for the Nov. 2 incident.
Legal experts cautioned that one extreme case should not be a reason to push for higher bail amounts that would keep poorer defendants behind bars longer while they await trial.
“We don’t want to have a kneejerk reaction here and say ‘Let’s lock up a lot of people pretrial,’ ” said John Gross, a law professor at the University of Wisconsin Law School and also the director of its Public Defender Project.
“I’m sure the district attorney’s office is going to look back at this and ask themselves, ‘Did we get this wrong?’ ” said Grossr. “This is such an extreme incident. … Could they reasonably expect he would get behind a vehicle and run people down on a parade route? What would have alerted you to the capacity he would have had for this kind of violence?”
Republicans call tragedy ‘avoidable’
Some Republicans were quick to jump on the case as an example of a broken legal system.
Republican Rebecca Kleefisch, a former Wisconsin lieutenant governor who is running for governor in 2022, called the killings “yet another avoidable tragedy that occurred because a violent career criminal was allowed to walk free and terrorize our community.”
And Republican state Rep. Cindi Duchow said she was reintroducing a constitutional amendment that would change the bail process in Wisconsin to allow judges to consider a defendant’s danger to the community when setting bail. Judges currently are only allowed to consider the possibility that defendants might not show up for a court appearance when setting bail.
“He tried to run over his girlfriend with his car — that’s attempted murder,” Duchow said. “If you’re a danger to society, you should have to work hard to get out.”
Thompson, the police chief, said that there was no evidence the bloodshed Sunday was a terrorist attack or that Brooks knew anyone in the parade. He said Brooks acted alone.
Victims honoured at vigil
Brooks had left the site of the domestic disturbance before officers arrived, and was not being chased by police at the time of the crash, according to the chief, who gave no further details about the dispute.
NBC News published doorbell camera footage that appeared to capture Brooks’s arrest. It showed Brooks, shivering in just a T-shirt, knocking on a homeowner’s door and asking for help calling for a ride. Moments later, police surrounded the house and shouted, “Hands up!” Brooks, standing on the porch, held up his hands and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa!”
Hundreds gathered at a downtown park Monday night in Waukesha for a candlelight vigil in honour of those lost and hurt. A pair of clergy solemnly read the names of those who died.
Volunteers handed out sandwiches, hot chocolate and candles at the vigil, which was attended by interfaith leaders and elected officials.
“We are parents. We are neighbours. We are hurting. We are angry. We are sad. We are confused. We are thankful. We are all in this together. We are Waukesha Strong,” said a tearful Amanda Medina Roddy with the Waukesha school district.
Waukesha Mayor Shawn Reilly has described the parade as a “Norman Rockwell-type” event that “became a nightmare.”