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Dozens of people who were hurt or saw their loved ones killed or injured when a man drove his SUV through a Christmas parade in suburban Milwaukee began addressing him for the first time Tuesday, as a two-day sentencing hearing began with raw, tearful statements about how their lives have changed.
Darrell Brooks Jr. drove his red Ford Escape through the parade in downtown Waukesha on Nov. 21, 2021. Six people were killed, including an 8-year-old boy. Scores of others were injured. A jury convicted Brooks last month of 76 charges, including six counts of first-degree intentional homicide and 61 counts of reckless endangerment.
“I feel gutted and broken. It hurts to breathe sometimes,” said Sheri Sparks, the mother of Jackson Sparks, the 8-year-old who was killed. “My mama’s soul aches for him. … This man not only took Jackson away from our family, he violently ripped Jackson from our lives.”
Sparks and others who gave statements on Tuesday morning asked Judge Jennifer Dorow to give Brooks the maximum penalty when she sentences him on Wednesday.
After several people spoke Tuesday morning, the court took an abrupt, unexplained break before reconvening more than an hour later. Dorow apologized for the disruption, explaining she had been notified that authorities had received a threat to the courthouse. “The sheriff has assured me that this building is quite safe. ‘Very secure’ were his words,” Dorow said.
Brooks, 40, almost certainly will spend the rest of his life in prison since each homicide count carries a mandatory life sentence. Legal experts said they expect Dorow to make the life sentences consecutive, with no chance of parole, because to do otherwise would likely mean an intense backlash from the community.
The crash left deep scars across southeastern Wisconsin that still haven’t healed. Several witnesses wept on the stand during Brooks’ trial as they described how the SUV barreled through the crowd, sending bodies flying through the air. Someone in the gallery yelled, “Burn in hell,” as Dorow read the guilty verdicts last month.
Prosecutors have said at least 45 people have asked to speak in court, including nine children.
Brooks chose to represent himself during his trial despite overwhelming evidence against him. His interactions with victim witnesses were tense, but he generally treated them respectfully, and they kept their answers short. Tuesday was the victims’ first chance to confront Brooks while he is forced to sit and listen.
Brooks was handcuffed as he sat at the defense table Tuesday, wearing an orange T-shirt and face mask. He rolled his eyes during some of the victims’ statements, and at times closed his eyes, shook his head, or bowed his head with his hands clasped in front of him. At one point he paged through a book. He nodded as one victim read passages from Scripture.
Sparks talked about how her boys were marching in the parade with their baseball team, the Waukesha Blazers. They had decorated a truck and filled some balloons, and she went to go sit and watch.
“I had no idea then the nightmare that was coming my way,” she said. “Nor did I know that it would be the last time that I would hear Jackson’s voice and see his smile.”
After the red SUV plowed through the crowd, she ran toward her boys. She saw Jackson in the arms of a police officer who was running to get him medical attention. Her husband told her that their older son, Tucker, was also hurt. She found Tucker, 12, under a blanket — first identifying him by his shoes that were sticking out.
Both boys had traumatic head and brain injuries and both were in the children’s hospital ICU. The next day, Tucker asked about Jackson. Sparks told the judge it was “gut wrenching” to have to tell Tucker that his little brother was not going to make it. “Tucker blamed himself. He felt he should’ve tried to grab Jackson or done more to protect his little brother,” she said.
Jessica Gonzalez, who was at the parade with her children, tearfully told the court that her family was unharmed physically, but are emotionally and mentally scarred. Her son was on Jackson Sparks’ baseball team, and she said she felt like she was punched in the stomach when she saw the SUV barrel through the crowd, from the direction of the team’s group.
She ran toward the baseball team, screaming for her son.
“I found Jackson first,” she said as she cried. “I saw his little body in his Blazers’ jersey. His eyes looking up. Looking nowhere. I knew he was hurt badly.” She said she heard children crying “Mom!” from many directions, but none of them were her son, until he said “Mama, I’m here. I was on the other side.”
She said she found her son unharmed. Her daughter was also not physically hurt, but “the pain and terror continued.” Gonzalez said she suffers from guilt and post-traumatic stress disorder that has forced her to quit her job as a teacher.
She said she could not forgive Brooks because he has shown no remorse.
“When he suggested he could’ve hit more, he was wrong. He hit everyone,” she said. “The toll this event has taken on everyone, physical or not, is tremendous.”
Another victim, Lori Lochen, was walking in the parade with her “church family,” the Catholic Community of Waukesha. She told Brooks that he robbed her of her sense of peace and personal safety.
“You never gave me a chance,” she said. “I turned around and it was only seconds before you hit me square on … the searing pain of that blow is as clear to me today as it was a year ago.”
Tuesday morning’s statements were emotional — the judge and prosecutors dabbed their eyes at times.
Brooks told the judge this month that nine people will speak on his behalf, including his mother.
The monthlong trial was punctuated by erratic outbursts from Brooks, who refused to answer to his own name, frequently interrupted Dorow and often refused to stop talking. The judge often had bailiffs move him to another courtroom where he could participate via video but she could mute his microphone.
After he was removed from the main courtroom during jury selection, he removed his shirt, sat on the defense table bare-chested and stuck down his pants a sign he’d been given to signal objections. Later in the trial, he built a small fort out of his boxes of legal documents and hid behind it so the camera couldn’t pick up his face.
Dorow said in a memo to Brooks and prosecutors this month that she has received emails, letters, cards and gifts, including candy and other food, in connection with the case.
Any perception of judicial bias against Brooks could provide him with grounds for an appeal.
Dorow wrote that the gifts will not influence her sentencing decision, saying that she has taken “every step possible” to not read the correspondence and that she has distributed the candy among the clerk of court’s staff.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that much of the correspondence came from livestream viewers who praised the judge’s handling of a difficult case.