Darrell Brooks changed his plea to insanity for the Waukesha Christmas parade. Here's what that means for his trial.

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Darrell Brooks, accused of driving through the Waukesha Christmas parade, has changed his plea to not guilty by reason of mental defect or disease. Here’s what that means for his trial.

Brooks, 40, is charged with killing six people and injuring more than 60, accused of driving his SUV through the Waukesha Christmas parade in November 2021. After his request to move the trial out of Waukesha was denied June 20, Brooks’ attorney Jeremy Perri announced that they were changing the plea.

The jury trial is scheduled to take place in Waukesha County Circuit Court from Oct. 3-28.

Darrell Brooks Jr. enters the Waukesha County Courthouse courtroom in Waukesha  on Monday, June 20, 2022.
Darrell Brooks Jr. enters the Waukesha County Courthouse courtroom in Waukesha on Monday, June 20, 2022.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel spoke to forensic psychiatrist Ziv Cohen on what this new plea means for the trial. Cohen is based in New York City and has provided expert testimony on defendants who plead not guilty by reason of insanity.

Recently, Cohen testified on the 2017 incident in which a man drove through Times Square, killing one and injuring 22 others. The jury found the man not guilty by reason of mental illness.

How the trial will change

The trial will shift into two phases. First, the jury will determine whether there is enough evidence to prove that Brooks committed the actions he is accused of. If they find that he did, the trial moves to the second phase, in which the jury will decide whether Brooks is mentally responsible for his actions.

When a court finds a defendant not guilty by reason of mental defect or disease, Cohen said the defendant typically goes to a maximum security psychiatric facility. Instead of receiving a jail sentence, psychiatric doctors would evaluate the defendant and determine the level of supervision and security needed.

“So they can either be kept indefinitely in a maximum security forensic psychiatric hospital or they can be moved to a civil hospital, which is a little bit of a lower security hospital,” Cohen said. “Many years later, they can even be discharged to the community under supervision.”

One doesn't need to look beyond Waukesha County for examples of such cases.

In the high-profile Slender Man stabbing case, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser pleaded guilty by reason of mental defect for their roles in the 2014 stabbing of a classmate.

Weier was sentenced to a 25-year commitment to a mental hospital after she pleaded guilty to attempted second-degree intentional homicide. In September 2021, a judge released Weier to live with her father under GPS monitoring, and she will spend the rest of her sentence under community supervision.

Geyser was sentenced to 40 years in a mental hospital, where she has been treated for schizophrenia. She petitioned for conditional release earlier this month.

In another high-profile case, Alan Randall was found not guilty by reason of insanity, after he was charged with killing two Summit police officers in 1975. He spent years in a mental hospital and was released in 2013 after doctors eventually concluded he wasn't mentally ill.

Battle of the experts

The burden of proof is on the defense, meaning that it must prove Brooks had a severe mental illness at the time of the Waukesha Christmas parade. Cohen said "severe mental illness" typically refers to mental illnesses where thoughts are extremely disordered.

“Something like schizophrenia where you can have an episode that your relationship to reality is fundamentally altered,” Cohen said. “Therefore, you’re having a hard time understanding what’s really happening, understanding that what you’re doing is wrong or even having a hard time controlling your behavior.”

Ultimately, Cohen said, it is extremely difficult for defendants to succeed with an insanity defense.

“There's a certain skepticism that jurors tend to have about individuals claiming insanity,” Cohen said. “Especially when it's a local jury, one would think that they're going to be even more sensitive to that.”

Cohen said the defense will likely bring in witnesses that can testify to Brooks’ mental illness, and the prosecution will likely focus on witnesses to what happened at the Christmas parade.

“You're going to see a battle of the experts,” Cohen said. “We're going to see different narratives presented by defense experts and prosecution experts.”

Brooks’ history

The court will review Brooks’ records, including criminal, medical, mental health and employment.

Brooks has been charged with 10 crimes in the past, beginning at age 17, when he pleaded guilty to a felony charge of inflicting substantial bodily harm against another person in 1999. He was sentenced to three years on probation in connection with that charge and later spent time behind bars for recklessly endangering safety of family members and statutory seduction of a minor, among other charges.

After the Christmas parade incident, Brooks’ mother, Dawn Woods, and her family released a letter expressing condolences to the parade victims and explaining that Brooks did not receive proper resources to combat his mental illness.

Milwaukee’s CBS 58 released the full letter, which reads: “Darrell has suffered from mental health issues since he was very young. In those years he received counseling and was on medication. When he became an adult a decision was made that he no longer suffered from a mental illness. That decision left him with no insurance or financial means to pay for medication and when determind [sic] necessary counseling.”

Woods said the family was not making excuses for Brooks’ conduct and wrote: “Jail is not the answer, because they get released back in society sicker than what they were when they entered.”

Lydia Morrell can be reached at 320-444-2339 or lmorrell@gannett.com. Follow her on Twitter at @lydia_morrell

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Brooks changed plea to insanity for Waukesha parade. Here's what it means