EXPLAINER: How the parade crash insanity plea will work OCN News

MADISON, Wis. (AP) – A man accused of driving his SUV through a Christmas parade in suburban Milwaukee last year, killing six people and injuring dozens more, gave notice this week that he will try to persuade a jury that he was mentally ill during the incident and if convicted he should be incarcerated rather than jail.

But Darrell Brooks Jr.’s new insanity defense could be a tough sell in Waukesha County, which is still recovering from the horrors of that November day.

Here’s a look at how insanity pleas work in the Wisconsin court system and what Brooks’ attorneys would have to prove to avoid jail time.

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WHAT ARE THE FEES?

Court documents allege Brooks beat the mother of his child just before the parade began in downtown Waukesha on Nov. 21 because she failed to bail him several days earlier. He had been arrested for hitting her with his SUV.

He then drove the vehicle down the parade route, ignoring police orders to stop, according to a criminal complaint. He rammed people head-on and knocked them over as they lay on the ground, according to the complaint. He eventually drove off the parade route, left his vehicle, and tried to find someone to let him into his home. The police captured him there.

Prosecutors have charged him with more than 80 counts, including several counts of reckless endangerment and six counts of intentional homicide. Each of the homicide counts carries a mandatory life sentence.

No potential motive has emerged so far, although his lawyers say officers who arrested him noticed he smelled of marijuana and his eyes were red and glassy. His public defender, Jeremy Perri, did not return a message.

WHAT DID BROOKS PLEAD?

Brooks initially pleaded not guilty. His attorneys on Monday asked Judge Jennifer Dorow to move his trial out of Waukesha County due to negative publicity. When Dorow refused, he changed his plea to not guilty by reason of illness or mental defect.

It’s the Wisconsin equivalent of an insanity plea. Brooks basically says he was suffering from a psychotic episode and didn’t realize what he was doing was illegal or unable to obey the law.

WHAT COMES NEXT IN COURT?

Dorow will appoint a psychologist to examine Brooks and issue findings on whether there is enough evidence to support his plea. If the psychologist believes he was competent, Brooks’ attorneys can ask Dorow to appoint an examiner of their choosing.

If there is ultimately enough evidence to support the plea, Dorow will conduct a jury trial to determine if Brooks committed the offenses. If found guilty, she will hold another trial with the same jury to determine if he was so mentally ill that he didn’t know he was breaking the law or if he couldn’t comply with the law.

If the jury makes such a finding, Brooks would avoid jail and instead be committed to a mental institution for the length of the sentences that accompany the criminal charges. He would, however, be allowed to request his release.

WHAT DOES THE DEFENSE HAVE TO PROVE?

Brooks’ lawyers will have to show by a preponderance of evidence that during the parade, Brooks essentially lost touch with reality, said Dr. Ziv Cohen, a New York-based forensic psychiatrist who has seen more than 50 cases. ‘homicide. They will need to show that Brooks has a history of mental illness and what happened to him on the day of the parade that caused the psychotic episode, Cohen said. His current mental state is irrelevant.

WILL THIS BE DIFFICULT FOR BROOKS?

Extremely difficult, according to Daniel Adams, a former Milwaukee County prosecutor who handled a dozen insanity cases during his tenure. Even notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer, who admitted to strangling and slaughtering 17 men or boys over the age of 13 and dismembering some of the victims, failed to prove he was insane at his trial, noted Adams.

The first hurdle for the defense will be finding a psychologist willing to declare Brooks mentally ill, he said.

“They have their reputation at stake,” he said.

Prosecutors are unlikely to concede insanity given the high-profile nature of the case, Adams said. They can point to Brooks’ decision to eventually turn off the parade route and try to hide shows that he understood his actions were illegal, Adams said.

“Somebody who was so mentally ill that he didn’t know what he was doing was wrong wouldn’t have done that,” Adams said.

IS THERE ANY EVIDENCE THAT SUGGESTS BROOKS HAS MENTAL HEALTH PROBLEMS?

No. Nothing has been made public by the defense or the prosecution to suggest he was sane or mentally ill.

WHAT IF HE WAS HIGH ON MARIJUANA?

That wouldn’t support an insanity defense, Cohen said. Defendants cannot become intoxicated on purpose and then claim the drug caused the break from reality unless they can show it caused an unexpected reaction, he said.

HOW WILL A WAUKESHA COUNTY JURY REACT?

The incident sparked several fundraisers for survivors and families of the dead. People erected a makeshift memorial, attended prayer vigils and city officials hung paintings of the six people killed in City Hall. And the anger towards Brooks is still burning.

Juries often treat insanity defenses as weak excuses, Cohen said. A Waukesha County jury will almost certainly meet Brooks’ arguments with deep skepticism, he said.

“It’s going to be difficult to overcome this skepticism with a local jury,” he said. “You must have a serious enough mental disorder not to know at all what you are doing is wrong.”

DID HIGH-LEVEL CRIMINAL INCIDENTS SUCCESSFULLY SUPPORT THEY ARE CRAZY?

Yes. One of the most famous is John Hinckley Jr., who attempted to assassinate then-President Ronald Reagan in 1981. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity in federal court. He was released from psychiatric care in 2016.

Outrage over the discovery led to the passage of the Defense Against Insanity Reform Act 1984, which made it more difficult to obtain a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity in lowering evidentiary standards for prosecutors to prove sanity.

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